Molodezh' Buryatiya ("Buryat Youth"), September 13, 2000 (Russian, Windows-1251)
The Southwest Research and Information Center is a small, non-commercial environmental organization. It is located in Albuquerque New Mexico. The scope of our work covers environmental issues and industrial impacts on local communities. We study water quality, pollution abatement, investigate how mineral, oil and gas extraction, how municipal operations affect the environment.
We also actively study the environmental problems associated with the mining and use of uranium. The mines in our state provide more than half of America's uranium. Two nuclear centers are located in New Mexico: Los Alamos and Sandia. I have studied these problems, as well as the problems associated with abandoned mines in the former German Peoples' Republic and other eastern-European countries, for more than twenty years.
This is already my fourth trip to Siberia, but my first to Buryatiya. This purpose of this trip is to inspect the Khiagdinskii mine site and meet with people in the village of Romanovka who are concerned with uranium mining. The Buryatskii Republic (sic) Union for Baikal invited me; this NGO does its work with the support of ISAR and the Moscow based public interest NGO - EcoLine.
My main impression after visiting the Khiagdinskii mine site is a lack of environmental management. That is, first of all, ground water management and care for surface conditions. The staff at AO "Khiagda" revealed that there are no reclamation and ground water restoration plans in their project given that the current work is an experiment. Only I saw fifty barrels of uranium oxide, worth more than a million dollars at current market prices, sitting in their storage area. What I saw is not an experiment, but something resembling a commercial operation.
In situ uranium leach mining at the Khiagdinskii mine site is causing extensive ground water pollution. It could have been possible to optimize the injection solution, to lower the concentration of sulfuric acid, to oxygenate the solution. This kind of solution is used at the Highland mine, an operation that people in Russia love to cite. I provided data on the solution used at this mine.
The problem of ground water restorations, once the mine is abandoned, would be easier if such a solution were used. The production and injection of this solution is more complex. But five times less sulfuric acid is needed. This would also have reduced production costs. Demonstrating the ground water restoration capacity is best done in the laboratory, in field conditions, this before any extraction is undertaken.
The restoration work undertaken upon completion of commercial mining operations should include leveling the surface and restoring the vegetation that was present before the start of operations. The plans for AO "Khiagda" call for natural re-vegetation of the surface. US and international standards, however, require a bond to assure that restoration work will take place. The polygon should be restocked with vegetation typical of the site once operations are complete. And AO "Khiadga" should restore not just the well field, but also everything associated with the polygon.
It is essential that bonds be in place for the reclamation work, for the ground water restoration work. International practice calls for a company to set aside, in a bank, funding, in the form of a bond, before operations begin. If the company does the restoration itself, it receives the money back, along with interest, upon completion of the work. In other cases, outside entities are hired with these funds.
The company must have risk insurance when shifting to commercial production. A fund should be created for the timely cleanup of the site. There should be a restoration fund, money to pay for transportation and communications, as well as for equipment to rapidly neutralize acid.
The production process also brings up a number of questions. I did not see any real monitoring of the solution injected and extracted from the wells; there is no mass-balance calculation made. The chemical lab equipment does not even meet the needs for a high school chemistry class. So, what can be the analysis of the contents of the samples taken? At the same time, I have no reason to doubt the qualifications and good intentions of the chemists. I was, though, unable to obtain even basic information and it was not clear if that was because it does not exist or because of obviously excessive secrecy.
Radiation protection also does not comply with international standards. Fixed monitoring of radiation levels is not carried out at wells, at the process plant, at living quarters or in the cafeteria. Personal dosimetry equipment is simply lacking. Thus, it is unknown who receives what level of radiation. The site should not operate without such radiation control devices.
A serious problem at the site is "permafrost". The operators believe it capable of insulating the injected solution. But after all, it can melt, deform as it refreezes and thaws, causing fractures in the poly-chloride piping through which the solution is delivered. I know of no uranium mines in permafrost zones where in situ leaching is used. So monitoring for any possible solution escape, for changes in temperature regime, for geochemistry is essential.
At the same time, the uranium mining does not represent a serious danger for the residents of Romanovka. The greater risk is moving large volumes of sulfuric acid on the same public ferry when adults and children are present. Both the company and the residents should be more actively engaged in an information exchange. They need to work to reduce the secrecy and to be more open. AO "Khiagda" should invite local representatives to the mine site. An open dialogue would reduce much of the fear. It is extremely important to set up reliable communications between Romanovka and Khiagda. It is not that expensive to supply the village with a radio; it is simply that AO "Khiagda" has no interest.
A much greater risk to the residents of Romanovka is the transport of large volumes of petroleum products to gold mining operations. Add to this that in the near future there is a plan to win gold through heap leaching, meaning cyanide will soon be transported through the region.
Though AO "Khiagda" needs to take part in constructing a bridge across the Vitim River, the region's gold mining operations should be even more interested in a bridge and need to help finance at least half of its construction. Republic and regional authorities should be engaged in this construction project. To demand full funding of the cost of the bridge from AO "Khiagda" is "economic terrorism".
I want mention the cordial welcome extended by the staff at AO "Khiagda", the constructive dialogue and the absence of any antagonism. We discussed, in detail, technical issues, exchanged experiences, examined various types of technologies used at different mines. AO "Khiagda" didn't necessarily agree with many of my suggestions, but they will be used in public sector ekspertiza of any future project to shift the operation to a commercial basis.
I was much taken by the splendid hospitality of the people of Romanovka. They are short of information, making them afraid of the uranium mining, when in fact, the transport of sulfuric acid is more dangerous. They are not at fault for their fears; they stem from a lack of information.
When I return to the US, I will prepare a report for "BRO-Baikal" and "EcoLine".
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