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Cleanup of Toxic Uranium Legacy Taking Decades
NMED to allow discharge of 5,500 gallons per minute of contaminated groundwater directly onto the land
Laura Watchempino and Susan Gordon
The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) released a draft permit for public review in December, 2013 on groundwater discharges at the Homestake Mine near Milan and finished collecting comments in February.
The Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment (MASE) and its member groups submitted technical comments on Discharge Permit 200, stating that the permit as drafted will not ensure protection of the public’s health or future water supplies. One major flaw in the permit is that pre-uranium development background values were never established at the Homestake Superfund site. The result is that state and federal regulators have agreed to a permanent level of “acceptable pollution” for four regional aquifers in the San Mateo Creek watershed west of Mt. Taylor. This means that Homestake Mining Company, now owned by Barrick Gold Corporation, does not have to conduct a full-scale cleanup of the groundwater it polluted during 30 years of uranium mill operations.
Residents of five subdivisions located next to the Superfund site have pointed out that public review and input were never solicited for the alternative contaminant levels adopted by the regulatory agencies. “Nearby area residents have been involuntarily subjected to unacceptable radon exposures in ambient air, soil and water in the aquifers beneath their homes,” said Candace Head-Dylla. “For at least 40 years now, long-term residents have been exposed to five times what the EPA says is an acceptable cancer risk from the radon in the air we breathe.” Head-Dylla continued, “People we know have battled and, in some cases, died from cancer while the NMED, EPA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allow Homestake-Barrick Gold Corp. to try experimental remedial systems that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has deemed inadequate.” In 2009, NMED warned subdivision homeowners not to use the water in their private wells, but none of the wellheads have been systematically tested or shut down.
Homestake originally told area residents that pollution from its mill was confined to the shallow alluvial aquifer beneath the site. In subsequent years, Homestake reported that groundwater pollution had, in fact, spread first to the Upper Chinle aquifer, then to the Middle Chinle and Lower Chinle aquifers. Homestake is currently operating a groundwater “pump-and-treat” program, which residents and MASE contend is merely flushing and diluting the pollution with clean water from the San Andrés/Glorieta aquifer. In February, 2012, State Engineer Scott Verhines approved Homestake’s application for 839 supplemental wells into the alluvial and Chinle aquifers, and for five replacement wells in the San Andrés formation “in the event that existing wells fail.”
MASE is recommending that the NMED monitor the San Andrés aquifer subcrop, approximately two-and-a-half miles southwest of the Superfund site, for any evidence that its alluvial groundwater contaminant plume has reached the San Andrés. The San Andrés aquifer is the last remaining clean drinking-water source for residents of Bluewater and Milan villages and the city of Grants. That aquifer is also a primary source of recharge for the Río San Jose at Acoma, approximately 20 miles downstream of the Superfund site. The state engineer has directed Homestake to use the best technology available to ensure the conservation of water to the maximum extent practicable.
The next step in challenging the permit is a hearing open to the public on April 29 that will be held at the Cíbola County Government Building in Grants. There will be no opportunity for public comments, but written comments can be submitted for the record prior to the hearing. For more information, contact MASE at 505.577.8438 or www.masecoaltion.org
Laura Watchempino is with the Laguna Acoma Alliance for a Safe Environment. Susan Gordon is with MASE. firstname.lastname@example.org
STATE OF NEW MEXICO BEFORE THE SECRETARY OF ENVIRONMENT
IN THE MATTER OF THE APPLICATION OF HOMESTAKE MINING COMPANY OF CALIFORNIA FOR MODIFICATION AND RENEWAL OF GROUND WATER DISCHARGE PERMIT DP-200, MILAN, NEW MEXICO
Application and Facility Description: In the Discharge Permit DP-200 modification and renewal application for the HMC uranium mill site, HMC proposes to modify the existing Discharge Permit to authorize the treatment and/or discharge of up to 5,500 gallons per minute of groundwater that has been contaminated by seepage from former uranium milling operations. Contaminated groundwater that is collected from wells is currently treated primarily by reverse osmosis, or is discharged to three synthetically lined evaporation ponds. The Discharge Permit would authorize land application of contaminated ground water subject to water quality limitations for a maximum of two years, and implementation of additional reverse osmosis and evaporative capacity. Additionally, this modification and renewal of Discharge Permit DP-200 would authorize implementation of alternative treatment methods that HMC currently is pilot-testing, which would be subject to NMED approval before full-scale use. Water contaminants associated with this discharge include nitrate, selenium, uranium, combined radium-226 plus radium-228, chloride, sulfate, total dissolved solids, and molybdenum. Alluvial groundwater below the tailings impoundments ranges from approximately 25 to 50 feet below ground surface.
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