Since opening its McArthur River uranium mine, in 1999, Cameco Corporation has become a global leader in uranium production and groundwater contamination. Over the past decade, Cameco has been criticized for mine collapses, extensive groundwater contamination, major uranium and cyanide spills, and transportation accidents – most recently in Nebraska, Wyoming and Saskatchewan….
“A lack of relevant knowledge about faults and fractures”
The Oglala Sioux Nation, along with the Western Nebraska Resources Coalition, Owe Aku/Bring Back the Way, the Clean Water Advocacy Project, Rock the Earth, and other petitioners are filing a legal claim against Crow Butte Resources (CBR), a subsidiary of Cameco. The petitioners maintain that CBR’s in-situ uranium operations, near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, are contaminating the Brule, Arikaree and High Plains aquifers, a major source of freshwater stretching from Texas to South Dakota that supplies irrigatable water for growing vegetables, grains and raising livestock. The Crow Butte mine currently produces roughly 800,000 pounds of uranium “yellowcake”, yearly, which is used for power generation in Canada.
CBR is currently attempting to expand its operations to include in-situ extraction of uranium from the High Plains Aquifer – one of Cameco’s three planned uranium mining expansions near Crawford, Nebraska. The in-situ leaching process requires injection of a bicarbonate solution that extracts uranium from a sandstone ore body. “Treated” wastewater is then injected back into the aquifer. The process releases radioactive and toxic chemicals such as arsenic, radium, radon, and thorium into the aquifer. Petitioners maintain that in-situ uranium mining always prevents water quality from being returned to baseline levels.
At a January 16 hearing, petitioners maintained that CBR’s operations have violated the Tribe’s rights, under the Ft. Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1868, US Indian law and environmental justice policies, the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the Winters Doctrine, which ensures the Pine Ridge Reservation continued access to a sufficient amount of quality water.
According to petitioners, CBR has reported 23 leaks of radioactive material at its facility in Dawes County, Nebraska and has admitted to “a spill of approximately 300,000 gallons of radioactive waste at its mine in Crawford, Nebraska….failure to clean up one-third of the spills equalling approximately 100,000 gallons of radioactive liquid waste….admission….to a one gallon per minute leak for several years into the Brule aquifer….admission of a leak that contaminated 25,000 sq. ft. of the Brule aquifer.”
Petitioners maintain that CBR’s previous activities have led to the closure of at least 98 wells on the Pine Ridge Reservation due to associated arsenic contamination that ensued from the Chadron well-casing failure. Well contamination resulted in an increase in kidney and cancer problems.
Affidavits supporting the petitioners’ claims expressed the need for “continued access to local, pristine water for medicines and ceremonies." Supporters include acclaimed indigenous rights activist and writer, Winona LaDuke, from Honor the Earth.
On April 29, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) agreed that the Western Nebraska Resources Coalition and Owe Aku/Bring Back the Way (a Lakota group from the Pine Ridge Reservation) have legal standing and that the Oglala Sioux should be considered as a potential participant. The NRC recognized concerns regarding potential groundwater contamination and threats to human health should be considered further. The NRC also agreed to hear petitioners’ objections to the State of Nebraska issuing a uranium mining permit to a foreign-owned company, a possible violation of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act.
The NRC also agreed to allow consideration of a Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) letter critical of geological information provided by Cameco that disregards the possibility for underground faults and fractures to allow mine waste water to contaminate underlying aquifers. According to the NRC, Cameco’s request for an aquifer exemption demonstrates “a lack of relevant knowledge about faults and fractures that might allow for the mixing of the water in different aquifers.”
In neighbouring Wyoming, Cameco has recently been criticised by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (WDEQ) for its Smith-Highland Ranch uranium operations, north of Douglas. The in-situ mine is operated by Power Resources Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Cameco.
The six-page investigation details several “long-standing” environmental violations, such as delays in restoring contaminated groundwater, “routine” spills and the existence of a bond grossly inadequate to cover full site restoration.
Company spokesperson, Gord Struthers, claims the issues are related to poor company documentation and insists that Cameco is committed to the environment. According to Struthers, “It’s real hard to trumpet our values in this situation, but I think that over the years it’s pretty clear the company has been a solid performer. The environment is one of our top priorities."
Adding to the company’s reputation for routine spills and contaminating groundwater, contractors discovered a leak from Cameco’s Rabbit Lake mill, on January 26, which was caused due to seepage of a process solution through the mill’s floor. According to company spokesperson, Struthers, at no point did the leak did not place workers or groundwater at risk and there will be no long-term damage. Struthers claims that groundwater surrounding the facility “naturally” flows into a tailings management facility, where it is fully contained.
Kevin Scissons, director of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) said Cameco will not be required to pay penalties for the leak, which has become a regular occurrence at many of Cameco’s operations. According to Scissons, "The penalty to them, of course, if you look at it, [Cameco] has extended their mill shutdown and they spent considerable dollars remediating and preventing this."
Cameco previously reported an underground leak at Rabbit Lake in November, 2007, at the Eagle Point Mine.
“Non-standard methodology and industry best practice”
While Canada supplies roughly 30% of the world’s uranium, Cameco’s McArthur River uranium mine, alone, provides 20% of the world’s supply and is the largest high-grade, underground uranium mine in the world.
An April, 2003 cave-in and flood of radioactive water at McArthur stopped production for three months. Cameco admitted that consultant’s reports had warned of caving and flooding as the mine did not possess adequate water pumping and treatment capacity or proper contingency plans in the event of an accident. Cameco also conceded that their engineering used non-standard methodology and could not relate to standard industry practice.
A Canadian Broadcasting Channel (CBC) report revealed that Cameco was expecting a flood months prior to the incident. Following the accident, the company increased the allowable amount of radiation its workers could be exposed to. The report revealed that McArthur miners, working without ventilation equipment were exposed to high levels of radon during the containment and rebuilding of the mine because contaminated water was accidentally pumped into the clean water line.
Cameco’s other Saskatchewan-based operations are at Rabbit Lake and Key Lake. Now mined-out, Key Lake is currently the world’s largest uranium milling facility, processing 18 million pounds of milled uranium oxide (U3O8) yearly that comes from the company’s McArthur River mine. While nearly exhausted of its uranium, Rabbit Lake will process uranium mined from the Cigar Lake Mine once that facility is operating.
Cigar Lake suffered its own setback, in October 2006, when that mine flooded. Cigar Lake is the world’s largest undeveloped underground uranium mine and was expected to begin supplying 1/6 of the world’s uranium by 2008. Production has been delayed at least a year.
January 2007 uranium prices were ten times more than only six years ago, making even marginal deposits valuable. Uranium mining in Saskatchewan has proven particularly valuable as ore deposits can contain as much as 24% uranium. This, combined with a relative lack of local opposition and the isolation of the mines, allows Cameco to post massive profits even with a temporary closure of its operations.
Cyanide spills, too
Cameco has found there are other regions where the company can avoid using industry best practice. The company operates its Kumtor gold mine in Kyrgyzstan, where cyanide-laced tailings are dumped on top of a glacier, untreated and unlined. In 1998 Cameco was responsible for a cyanide spill into the Kumtor River that killed at least two citizens and devastated the area’s Lake Issyk-Kul tourist industry.
UP Uranium and more spills
In 2003, a Cameco and Bitterroot Resources Ltd. Option/joint venture agreement (JVA) began exploring 780 square miles of the Upper Peninsula for a high-grade uranium deposit, citing Kennecott Minerals’ success in locating its nickel/copper/PGE deposit (Eagle Project) as the impetus behind its accelerated exploration. Bitterroot had previously been involved in a JVA with Kennecott Minerals in exploring for nickel, copper, platinum and palladium in the Upper Peninsula.
Recently, the company has posted a public health advisory on its website. The advisory notes recorded levels of uranium in Keweenaw drinking water, suggesting to investors that 1., uranium is present in the area and 2., although the company is prone to accidents that contaminate groundwater, the area surrounding some of its projects may represent a tolerance to certain levels of contamination, enabling the company to operate in the style to which it is accustomed.
On November 24, 2005, an RSB Logistics semi-truck wrecked on M-117, in Mackinaw County, Michigan. The truck was transporting low-level radioactive calcined mining materials for Cameco from Blind River, Ontario to Blanding, Utah. The driver drove into the ditch while choking on a piece of beef jerky. M-117 was closed to traffic between US-2 and M-28. A Cameco hazardous materials team unloaded the cargo. The Michigan State Police noted that the incident caused “no known health threat.”
Doing it Down-Under
Cameco has received approval from the Northern Territory Government, in Australia, to proceed with exploration plans for its Angela and Pamela uranium deposits, south of Alice Springs. The exploration is a joint-venture project with Australian mining company Paladin. The Territory’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment denies claims that Alice Springs’ water supply could be contaminated due to uranium mining.
Native title holders have expressed their opposition to the project due to potentially hazardous human health affects due to groundwater and aquifer contamination.
According to Cameco Australia’s regional director, Jennifer Parks, "One of the first things we’ll need to do is to consult with the community to ensure anything that we’ll do will be environmentally and socially sustainable."
Parks maintains the project would produce numerous local jobs and other opportunities.
The project could also potentially affect Tattersall’s Finke Desert Race, a multiple-day off-road event, as well as hinder restoration of the transcontinental Old Ghan railway, according to the National Road Transport Hall of Fame.
While Cameco stresses the project is only in the exploration stage, at a May 7 meeting on the proposed exploration, Monash University lecturer, Gavin Mudd, told the crowd of roughly 150, "You don’t spend money on a mineral deposit unless you’re going to mine it, and I think it’s fanciful to believe that you spend several million dollars exploring and then walk away and do nothing."
Native title holder, Tahnia Edwards explained that all decision-making power rests with government officials and urged the audience to “stand with us in fighting this issue….I see things like this as being an opportunity for us to come together in reconciliation because, as I said before, this isn’t just an issue and a burden for Aboriginal people. It’s an issue and a burden for us all."