Effects of Bootheel uranium search could prove costly

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Something's going on down in the Bootheel. At this point, it is all still pretty much a mystery, but if all comes together, it is likely to be an environmental disaster.

All that is known at this point is that a consulting firm -- Gustafson Inc. of Boulder, Colo. -- is doing some exploratory work for the U.S. Department of Energy and the Bendix Corp. Apparently, the engineers and geologists at Gustafson think that underneath all that rich topsoil deposited over thousands of years by flooding from the adjacent Mississippi River, is uranium.

The last uranium boom back in the '50s led to much exploration and several mines in western states -- Utah, Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona and others -- but not much in the Midwest. One reason was that the West contains millions of acres of public lands, exploration on public lands is fairly straightforward and, thanks to the Mining Act of 1874, staking out a claim is easy and cheap. The legacies of uranium mining in the western states are abandoned, unsafe mines and several radioactive dumps that will cost millions of taxpayer dollars to cover or move. The uranium boom quickly went bust, and once-thriving towns ceased to exist or were greatly diminished.

The Midwest, not having very many public lands, was not part of the uranium boom. So what has changed?

That question is essential because the Gustafson group is actively looking on private lands in this state and several surrounding states -- Kentucky, Arkansas and Kansas. As usual, those interested in establishing uranium extraction sites are promising landowners that they will become rich, taking vacations in the Bahamas. But, as usual, the money resulting from any uranium that might exist will go to Bendix, and landowners will be left with -- well, the shaft.

Note that this does not involve mining but rather "uranium extraction," and therein lays the problem. Although folks out West will complain of the unsafe holes in the ground left by uranium mining, the method proposed for Mississippi County is "in situ leaching."

In situ leaching involves drilling a series of injection and extraction holes way down deep into the underlying sandstone, pumping water under pressure laced with a "lixiviant" (leaching solution such as carbon dioxide and baking soda). The leachate dissolves the uranium and other heavy metals present (the leaching process isn't specific to uranium), and they are converted into sludge. Everything is then pumped back up to the surface via the extraction wells, and most of the uranium is removed. The wastewater, containing a bit of uranium and various other heavy metals, is land applied or otherwise discharged.

Immediately, several problems arise with this method. First, the sandstone in the Bootheel is permeable, and it is likely that groundwater -- drinking water -- in the area will be contaminated with dissolved radioactive metals.

Second, the process, although effective, does not remove all of the uranium -- some remains underground; some remains in the wastewater. Third, any discharge of radioactive and heavy metal waste will flow into area creeks and then into the Mississippi River.

The question still remains: What has changed? The in situ process is costly. Uranium prices have gone up from $7 to $70 a pound after reaching a peak of $120, but is there a sufficient quantity of uranium in the Bootheel's Mississippi alluvial area to warrant this process? In short, does the cost-benefit ratio work out so there's more benefit than cost?

There's no new demand, and the current supply is meeting the current demand.

Whatever the case, it is the "externalities" that are of concern. Polluted groundwater, discharge of radioactive waste into local creeks and national rivers -- the costs of these issues will be borne by everyone. Just ask folks in Utah dealing with the "Moab pile," where the uranium boom left a massive radioactive dump that is polluting the nearby Colorado River. Moving the radioactive materials to a site where it will cause much less harm will cost taxpayers millions.

The "external costs" turn out to be very costly.

Ken Midkiff of Columbia, Mo., is conservation chairman of the Osage group of the Missouri Chapter of the Sierra Club and author of "The Meat You Eat" and "Not a Drop to Drink." He is a columnist for the Columbia Daily Tribune. E-mail: editor@tribmail.com.

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