The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an aquifer exemption to UEC on Dec. 4, opening the door for the in-situ mining of uranium in a 1,421-acre area in the northern part of Goliad County to begin as soon as the end of 2013.
The in-situ mining operations will draw water from the Evangeline Aquifer, which is the main water source for Goliad County.
GCGCD Board President Art Dohmann would not speak on the record with the Advance-Guard when asked about the EPA’s aquifer exemption, but the GCGCD issued a news release shortly after the EPA’s decision, condemning the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which approved the aquifer exemption in March of 2011, and EPA for their decisions.
“The TCEQ ignored the recommendations of the Administrative Law Judge and then refused to assist the EPA in the attempt by the EPA to do confirming hydrologic evaluation,” the GCGCD stated in the news release. “In the end the EPA approved the aquifer exemption without fulfilling its stated obligation.”
The GCGCD also stated in the release that the TCEQ “approved this aquifer exemption over the objection of the Administrative Law Judge who stated that the permit should be remanded for additional technical evaluation or in the alternate that the permit be denied.”
“When the aquifer exemption was sent to the EPA by TCEQ, the EPA determined that the application was incomplete. Over an extended period, the EPA requested hydrologic data to assist them in making their decision as ‘the protection of drinking water is one of the EPA’s highest priorities.’ This included that modeling be done to determine if a link existed between the aquifer exemption area and adjacent drinking water supply wells. Additionally, the EPA requested that a pump test be performed across the south-east fault to document its hydrologic characteristics. There is no public information that any of this hydrologic data was ever provided.”
The GCGCD news release also stated that, “The GCGCD does not concur that the TCEQ or the EPA performed the necessary due diligence required by the statutes to protect this drinking water supply. In addition, if this water supply becomes contaminated as a result of in-situ uranium mining, TCEQ and the EPA will provide no remedy.”
The has been monitoring water quality in the 1,421-acre area for the past six years, according to the news release.
UEC celebrated the EPA’s decision.
“We are very pleased to have received this final authorization for initiating production at Goliad,” said Amir Adnani, President and CEO. “Our geological and engineering teams have worked diligently toward achieving this major milestone and are to be truly commended. We are grateful to the EPA for its thorough reviews and for issuing this final concurrence. The company’s near-term plan is to complete construction at the first production area at Goliad and to greatly increase the throughput of uranium at our centralized Hobson processing plant.”
The Advance-Guard was granted a tour of the Hobson facility in October and interviewed UEC Chief Operating Officer Harry Anthony at the site.
Anthony said UEC was met with opposition from Goliad County since the start of exploratory drilling in May of 2006.
In June of 2006, Anthony said he set up a meeting with Goliad County Judge Harold Gleinser to discuss the permitting process and was met with unexpected opposition in front of Victoria print and television media.
“I thought I was having a private meeting with the county judge and, instead, I was met with what I would call a ‘protest posse’ of 42 local concerned citizens,” Anthony said. “Somebody had gone out and stirred the pot. I was set up and not told about this at all.
“I was on the stand for three hours telling them they didn’t have to make any decisions about it and that it was only the permitting process, which would take several years. That was my first meeting with Goliad County and six weeks later the county voted to oppose uranium mining.”
Matt Welch, spokesperson for UEC, said Goliad has been the only county out of the seven in South Texas to mount resistance against the company.
“We’ve talked about it over the years and we don’t quite know how we got off on the wrong foot,” Welch said.
Anthony said the first meeting set the tone.
“You had San Antonio looking at outlying counties for sources of water,” Anthony said. “They looked at Goliad. The groundwater district headed up by Art Dohmann fought it and Art, in his mind, got the big city of San Antonio to give up its designs of using Goliad as a source of water.
“Then I show up. Now I’m the dragon breathing fire with radioactive signs all over the place. His last words on that very first day I met him were, ‘This is not the last you’ll hear from me.’ ”
Anthony said he offered the GCGCD to accompany UEC as it took baseline water tests from residential wells in the county in January 2007. According to Anthony, test results showed unhealthy levels of radium in some of the drinking water.
“We went to some of these homes and got water samples and they were high in radium-226,” Anthony said. “There is uranium, arsenic and radium all throughout South Texas. To these people, we contaminated their wells.”
In 2007, UEC was cited by the Texas Railroad Commission for administrative violations during explorative drilling in Goliad County but has passed all inspections in the last five years, according to Welch.
Welch said there has not been a documented case of groundwater contamination by any uranium operation in Texas.
Anthony said there was a concerted effort in Goliad to make UEC feel unwelcome.
“We couldn’t join the Chamber of Commerce,” Anthony said. “We got a letter saying our philosophy of business was different than theirs.
“We gave $10,000 to the high school and it was basically accused of being blood money.”
“Misinformation took root and it got spread,” Welch said. “I don’t know if we were prepared to defend ourselves as efficiently as we should have been. It was like a buzzsaw we walked into.
“When we were tired of being smacked as a result of us giving money to Goliad ISD, we thought there was a way to get a bigger bang for our buck and serve our mission better. There are other educational partners out there. We went to talk to Coastal Bend College and they gave us a warm embrace.”
Welch said UEC has provided a $20,000 scholarship in a two-year program for students from the seven-county area in which UEC has operations.
“We’re finally starting to fight back against this misinformation,” Welch said. “It’s not like we’re bringing uranium to this area for the first time ever. Uranium mining has been around this part of Texas for 50 years. It has operated safely and securely and been a part of the Texas and national economy. There just seems to be a hiccup in Goliad County.
“There are a lot of people in Goliad County who will tell us, ‘I’m not opposed to you, but I can’t keep my head up and come out public about it.’ ”
“We have great acceptance in Bee, Duval and Karnes counties,” Anthony said. “The only outlier is Goliad.”
According to Goliad County Auditor Susanna Moron, the county has spent approximately $546,000 since 2005 in legal fees involved in its opposition to UEC. After the Advance-Guard filed a Freedom of Information request, the GCGCD reported an amount of $90,984.86 had been spent in legal fees concerning UEC since 2005.
In August, the Goliad County Commissioners Court, including County Judge David Bowman, voted down a resolution to oppose UEC’s mining efforts in the county.
“We were pleased by that,” Welch said. “Judge Bowman has not bought into the previous framework that leaders have had in Goliad County.”
“I think he’s allowed the process to work through the TCEQ,” Anthony said. “That’s their job and not the local groundwater district’s.”
Houston attorney Jim Blackburn has represented Goliad County residents in their legal opposition with UEC. Blackburn said they could file a federal lawsuit against the EPA. he claimed the EPA’s aquifer exemption is not in line with the TCEQ’s exemption.