Mining the South’s Uranium
For good reason, anti-nuclear activists are increasingly concerned about the mining and milling of uranium. Health disorders — particularly lung cancer — have crippled miners in the Western states at an alarming rate. The radon gas trapped in uranium deposits decays to highly toxic “daughters” when the ore is mined and crushed during milling. Nothing can prevent this radioactive decay, and nothing can protect the uranium miners and millers from suffering, after a lapse of several years, from an abnormally high incidence (five times the normal rate) of lung cancer.
The dangers do not stop with the workers. The waste products from the milling process, known as “mill tailings,” contain high concentrations of radium and other radioactive products. Piled near the mills, the fine, granular tailings are free to blow away and contaminate drinking water, flora and fauna — and people. In the past, the sand-like substance has even been used as filler in building thousands of homes and schools. Some scientists, noting the highly toxic thorium (half-life of 80,000 years) and radon that is released into the air from these piles, conclude that mill tailings alone are more dangerous than all the other problems associated with the operation of a nuclear power plant.
The long-term dangers of mining and milling are now well documented. Under pressures from citizens in the uranium-rich Western states, several federal and state agencies are scurrying to make an impossible situation more tolerable.
In the near future the South will bear a much larger share of the burdens of mining and milling uranium. Texas already ranks fourth in the production of uranium ore — and because ore is stripped from the earth, the state suffers from the additional problems of strip-mining that have long plagued Appalachia’s coal mining region. Florida’s phosphate industry extracts uranium from the wastes of phosphoric acid production. Together, these states now mine only about three percent of the uranium produced in this country, but they have much larger potential for future exploration.
Furthermore, other Southern states have rock formations currently under investigation by Department of Energy (DOE) geologists; the total uranium potential of the region is as yet unknown, but a careful reading of industry and government documents indicates that commercial uranium mining (and related milling processes) will mushroom in the South — and particularly the Appalachian mountains — within the next 10 years.
Here is a rundown of existing uranium-mining operations, with a few comments on the future potential of different regions:
Phosphate mining is a flourishing industry in western Florida, primarily around the Lakeland-Tampa area. The waste from phosphoric acid production contains concentrations of 0.01 to 0.02 percent uranium ore. Beginning in 1975, the Uranium Recovery Corporation (a subsidiary of the United Nuclear Corporation) started to extract uranium from the materials produced by the phosphate industry. The plant had produced less than 1,000 tons by 1977, but federal officials have estimated that as much as 3,000 tons of uranium should be recoverable annually from Florida phosphates.
Now other industries have begun exploration in the area. Westinghouse, Gardinier, Inc., the Freeport Minerals Company and Gulf Oil are all investigating the possibility of extracting uranium ore from the area.
Uranium ore was first discovered in Texas in 1954. In 1959, the Climax Molybdenum Company opened the state’s first uranium mining operation — an open-pit mine in Karnes County. Mining now takes place in Karnes, Duval and Live Oak Counties in the coastal plain region of southeast Texas. Active mining companies include Union Carbide, U.S. Steel, Continental Oil, Westinghouse and Exxon Nuclear. Texas currently ranks fourth in the United States in uranium production and third in known reserves; the state also contains slightly less than 10 percent of the probable, possible and speculative reserves currently identified by the Department of Energy. (“Probable” reserves are those predicted in regions already producing uranium, “possible” in rock formation types that have been productive, and “speculative” in areas and formation types previously unproductive.)
Open-pit, or strip, mining was the process used in the first mines opened in Texas. This process has provoked considerable opposition in the state; now, producers have opted for “in-situ solution mining” — injecting oxygen-rich water into ore body sands to dissolve the uranium, withdrawing the resulting liquid through an adjacent well, and separating out the uranium. However, geologists have predicted that over 30 percent of the identified reserves in Texas will have to be strip-mined; 35 percent will involve underground mining, and only 24 percent the less environmentally dangerous solution mining.
Aside from existing mines, Texas has a nearly unlimited potential for further uranium exploration. The entire south Texas coastal plain, in a 50- mile-wide strip roughly 75 to 100 miles inland from the Gulf Coast, has suitable rock formations that indicate the presence of recoverable uranium deposits. Extreme southwest Texas, along the Mexican border slightly east of El Paso, has several rock deposits termed speculative sites.
The west Texas panhandle and the Texas-Oklahoma border region are credited with 14,000 tons of speculative uranium resources. Texas geologists anticipate identification of other likely resources in each of these areas in the near future.
South Central States
Ironically, the very same salt dome region being considered for nuclear waste repositories also rates high on the list of potential uranium-producing areas. Louisiana, Mississippi, east Texas and southwest Alabama all contain coastal region salt domes that could bear economically recoverable uranium. Furthermore, DOE has identified one possible site in central Arkansas and is investigating the sedimentary rocks of north-central Arkansas for further uranium possibilities.
In 1975, Professors John Dennison and Walter Wheeler of the University of North Carolina Geology Department summarized the existing information on rock deposits in the Southeast and targeted six areas with fluvial sandstone formations as the most promising source of uranium. They are:
(a) Black Creek Group” — Includes the entire coastal plain of North Carolina and parts of the coastal plains of northern South Carolina and southern Virginia. Phosphate areas along the North Carolina-South Carolina border could yield uranium in a process similar to that used in Florida.
(b) “Newark Group” — A series of Triassic basins in North Carolina and Virginia: the Deep River Basin in North Carolina, running southwesterly from Granville County to Anson County; the Dan River Basin, running northeasterly from Stokes County, North Carolina, to Campbell County, Virginia; the Farmville Basin in Cumberland County, Virginia; the Richmond Basin around Richmond, Virginia; and the Culpeper Basin in northern Virginia.
(c) “Dunkard Group” — Located in northern West Virginia, along the Ohio and Pennsylvania borders.
(d) “Pottsville Group” — Runs from Pennsylvania to Alabama, in the Appalachian mountains and includes large portions of Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and southwest Virginia.
(e) “Mauch Chunk — Pennington Group” — Underlies the Pottsville Group and encompasses roughly the same territory.
(f) “Hampshire Formation” — Part of the Catskill Complex in Maryland, eastern West Virginia and northern Virginia.
So far, DOE lists only two areas — Grandfather Mountain and Spruce Pine, N.C. — in its list of speculative uranium sites; they are currently expected to yield at least 14,000 tons of uranium annually. However, much more extensive exploration has been undertaken since the 1976 listing. In 1978, more than 20 companies were exploring the mountains of North Carolina and surrounding states for uranium potential. And DOE is currently investigating many sites in each of these regions of the country as part of its National Uranium Resource Evaluation (NURE) report, due in 1981.
Unless a strong effort is made to stop mining, or nuclear power itself is halted, there is little question about the accuracy of Professor Dennison’s recent prediction that “commercial uranium production from one or more localities will occur within 10 years.” Then the South, like the West, will come face to face with one of the most menacing aspects of the nuclear industry.
For further information on uranium mining in the Southern states, and more detailed maps of likely uranium-bearing areas, see Geology of Alternative Energy Resources in the South-Central United States, edited by Michael D. Campbell (Houston: Houston Geological Society, 1977), and Stratigraphy of Precambrian Through Cretaceous Strata in Southeastern United States and Their Potential as Uranium Host Rocks, by John M. Dennison and Walter W. Wheeler (Southeastern Geology Special Publication No. 5, July, 1975). See also occasionally published NURE research reports available in federal document depository libraries in every state.
Jim Overton, a board director and former staff member of the Institute for Southern Studies, is publisher of the North Carolina Independent. (1986)
Jim Overton is associate publisher of The North Carolina Independent, a progressive statewide newspaper — and a veteran of six-and- a-half-years with Southern Exposure. (1985)
Jim Overton is a staff member of the Institute for Southern Studies. (1983)
Jim Overton, a founding member of the Kudzu Alliance, directs the Energy Project of the Institute for Southern Studies. (1979)