Signal Equities has drilled between 500 and 700 exploratory holes over the past three years and was permitted for an ion exchange column plant in October 2011. The company has five years to build the plant before the permit expires or it renews it. If the plant is built, it will be located in Bee County about eight miles west of Pawnee.
Prior to any of the exploratory holes being drilled, Signal Equities took initial water samples to learn what the water quality was. Should the water quality differ after the exploratory holes are drilled, it will be restored to its original quality.
When drilling the exploratory holes, Signal Equities has to obtain permits from the Railroad Commission. According to George Bokorney, government affairs for Signal Equities, the exploratory holes are approximately eight inches in diameter and 200 to 400 feet deep.
“Typically, an exploration bore hole is drilled, and an electronic instrument, called a PFN, is lowered down the hole,” Bokorney said. “The connecting cable ‘logs’ the hole, analyzing geologic makeup of the various layers, where the uranium is located, what the measurement of content is and where aquifers might be located.”
In rare cases, a “core sample” or soil sample is taken from the hole, and “these core samples are analyzed in a lab to determine precise makeup of the underground structure, permeability, chemical analysis and so on,” Bokorney explained.
He said in either case, the exploratory hole is filled with cement within two days of being drilled.
If a large ore body is identified through the exploratory holes, a more complicated permitting process must be gone through with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) before the ore can be mined.
Bokorney said the TCEQ permitting process takes more than a year to complete but, in the meantime, the company trudges forward with the other exploratory holes.
The TCEQ permits require a year of environmental monitoring. Bokorney said the year of monitoring includes samples of vegetation, animal samples, weather data, economic impact on the local economy and more. Once the application is turned in and approved by TCEQ, the ore extraction can begin.
Bokorney explained that the wells for uranium extraction are placed in a five-spot pattern like that seen on a domino. The four outside wells are injection wells, and the center well is a recover well. A mixture of water, carbon dioxide and oxygen is pumped down into the injection wells and the result is pumped back out of the recovery well in the center.
To ensure safety, “a ring of monitor wells is placed 200 feet beyond the outermost inject well,” Bokorney said. “Water samples are taken from monitor wells every two weeks.”
Once the uranium filled water is pumped back out of the recovery well in the center, it is sent through an ion exchange column that allows the uranium to be stripped from the water and attached to plastic resin beads that are shipped off to a uranium recovery facility for further refinement into yellow cake. There are four such refinement facilities in Texas, and Bokorney said Signal Equities likes to keep its production domestically within Texas.
Should Signal Equities decide that there is enough uranium ore in less than 1,000 net acres the company has leased, it will be building an ion exchange column in Bee County and putting in one of the extraction wells.
The building process would take “four to six months concurrent with installation of production well field,” Bokorney said.
Before Signal Equities moves forward with plant plans, it wants to make sure it has enough ore in reserve. The company’s hope is to have three ore deposits permitted to begin plant construction.
Bokorney said Signal Equities has one ore body permitted already and two more in the TCEQ permitting process.
Bokorney said Signal Equities also has been doing some exploratory drilling in Live Oak County and, should the company find enough uranium ore there, it will go through the process to get the permit for another ion exchange column plant.
While uranium is currently only $52 a pound, Bokorney said, “There is a market for domestically produced uranium, and only 5 percent is domestically produced.”