A uranium mill site near Ray Point that has not been operational since the 1970s is still undergoing a cleanup process, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).
“A radioactive material license was issued to Susquehana-Western, Inc. in March 1973 to construct and operate a uranium mill, including disposal of mill tailings in an impoundment, at the site,” wrote Terry Clawson of TCEQ.
Disposing of the tailings in an impoundment means that the mill operators buried the excess minerals not needed after the uranium had been separated. They did this on the same property where the mill was located.
After Susquehana-Western was no longer using the mill, it was purchased by Exxon-Mobil.
“Exxon acquired the site in 1973. Decommissioning of the mill site was begun in 1979. This involved demolishing the mill site structures, removal of contaminated materials (including soil) and disposing of them in the tailings impoundment,” Clawson wrote.
“Upon completion of the demolition of the mill site structures and removal of contaminated material, a cap was placed over the top of the tailings impoundment and a vegetative cover established to inhibit erosion.
“Monitor wells were placed around the tailings impoundment to observe for signs of leakage from the impoundment. The site entered a period where it would be monitored for performance.”
Despite these safety measures, the damage had been done and would continue to surface at the site. In August 1994, TCEQ allowed Exxon to open a trench on one side of the impoundment to dispose of additional contaminated soil that had been found later, according to Clawson.
A decade later, in July 2004, Exxon was authorized to build a byproduct disposal cell in which to place more contaminated soil from the site, other materials removed from the site and contaminated soils from properties to the north of the mill site, across State Highway 72.
“With the acquisition of access to the property to the south of the tailings impoundment, [Exxon] may find additional contaminated soil that will need to be removed and disposed,” Clawson wrote.
Bruce Herbert, professor of geology and geophysics at Texas A&M University in College Station has done extensive research on similar impoundments in Karnes County. He said that the dangers of the waste products such as those found at the Ray Point mill site are mostly because of the arsenic and other poisonous metals.
Municipal drinking water supplies are regulated by a national standard that keep the arsenic in the supplies to 10 parts per 1 billion, according to Herbert.
The problem is that rural landowners often use private wells, which are unregulated.
Herbert went on to say that having a well tested for arsenic, and even treated if arsenic is found, is easy and inexpensive.
According to Herbert, treatment involves reducing the arsenic to the national standard by adding iron to the well, allowing it to precipitate as small crystals, much like rust, and it will absorb and remove the arsenic.
Herbert mentioned that it is often livestock and family pets which are most affected by water contamination.
“I’ve seen dogs jump into contaminated stock ponds and die within minutes,” Herbert said.
The good news is that newer uranium mining and waste disposal practices are far less dangerous.
According to Ben Knape, who specializes in groundwater at TCEQ, waste materials are concentrated into a salt water solution and injected into disposal wells that lie below underground drinking water sources.
There is no need for destruction of landscapes or years of ever-expanding cleanup.
“There is very low-level residual activity,” said Knape. “The impact [of injection waste wells] is not measurable by most instruments.”
Sarah Taylor is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or firstname.lastname@example.org.