The $631 billion Defense Authorization Act that passed the U.S. Senate unanimously on Tuesday included an amendment by Colorado’s Mark Udall requiring the secretary of energy to prepare a report that details the extent to which “legacy” uranium mines impact the environment and health.
Legacy uranium mines are defined as those that provided ore for the U.S. weapons program.
The report will describe and analyze the location of legacy mines on federal, state, tribal and private land; detail when mines may pose “a potential and significant radiation health hazard to the public” or other threat, and describe when “they may have caused or may cause degradation of water quality ... (or) environmental degradation.” It will prioritize and provide cost estimates for cleanup and reclamation of legacy mines.
The DOE report will also discuss the status of efforts to remediate and reclaim that have taken place or are taking place, and make recommendations for any changes in law needed to do so, as well as how best to protect public health and safety, water resources and the environment.
The secretary of energy has 18 months after approval of the act to prepare the report and present recommendations to the Senate Armed Services and Energy and Natural Resources committees, and their counterparts in the House.
The bill will now be sent to a House-Senate conference committee. However, the 98-0 Senate vote is indicative of the likelihood that it will pass in its present form and be sent to President Obama for his signature.
Udall’s office has credited Bruce Stover, a geologist and director of the Colorado Inactive Mine Reclamation Program, for being the “godfather” of the amendment. Last June, Stover said, “no one at the state level has looked at the levels of radiation in or outside of these mines or at other potential problems such as water pollution. Currently, we are more concerned with radon levels because those old abandoned mines are unvented, so on a hot day the radon can ‘exhale’ outside and create pretty hot alpha ray levels, and people near those mines need protection.”
Stover said Colorado has an estimated 1,300 abandoned uranium mines. The Environmental Protection Agency radiation website says that approximately 15,000 mines in 14 Western states have uranium occurrence, although only 4,000 mines are classified as having been “producing uranium mines.”
Mike Saccone of Udall’s office said that the study will provide the federal government with critical information that the senator hopes will lead to the remediation of the uranium mines.
“The Government Accounting Office study that came out in May underlined that the federal government does not know where all of these mines are ... cataloging these sites and the extent of the problem is the first step to remediating these sites,” he said.