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(last updated 8 Mar 1999)
this is an excerpt from:
Southwest Research and Information Center
P.O. Box 4524, Albuquerque NM, 87106-4524, USA
phone +1-505-346-1455, fax +1-505-346-1459, e-mail: email@example.com or PRobin414@aol.com
On Behalf of
Baikalwatch/Earth Island Institute
300 Broadway, Suite 28, San Francisco, SF 94133-3312 USA
tel: +1-415-788-3666, fax: +1-415-788-7324
Distribution Date: November 8, 1996 (reproduced here with permission)
This valley - one of the most restricted places in Siberia before 1990 - has a thirty year history of large-scale uranium mining, resulting in a pit 500 meters deep and a kilometer wide and rock dumps and uranium mills and tailings ponds larger than anything in the US, though they are rivaled in scale by some sites in Southern Africa, eastern Germany, Australia, and Canada. Underground shafts and processing plants are located right next to housing areas, which include thousands of log cabins and an array apartment blocks which once housed 70,000 people. Residential areas are surrounded by the pits, piles and headframes in the 30-40 square kilometer valley within which the mines and city are found. The major concentration of housing blocks sites is in the center of a low valley between hills up to 500 meters in elevation, with the natural areas covered by the grassy plants typical of great Russian steppe.
The housing plan for Krasnokamensk concentrated apartment blocks in a low-lying area some 2-3 kilometers from the central pit with other nearby settlements, often of log cabins interspersed with cement buildings, interspersed among the dozens of headframes and processing buildings at the complex. One of these settlements, Octobrysky, has homes with reported indoor radon levelup to 28,000 Bq/m3, some 190 times applicable indoor radon standards (at 37 Bq/m3 = 1 pCi/l; standard "action level for radon removal or treatment for US homes" at 4 pCi/l).
Uranium production at Krasnokamensk has been a cornerstone of the Siberia economy in its role as a raw materials colony for the Soviet Union and Russia for decades, including the post-1990 period. The operations are reported to account for 32%(!!) of the value of all exports from Siberia and the Russian Far East in 1993, and is the only uranium production site of any significant size left in Russia. Current contracts as reported with several western European countries and operations are projected to maintain production at the 4,000,000 - 5,000,000 pound rate to meet those contracts, though that production is only 56% of full capacity as reported by the London-based Uranium Institute.
Operations were described as beginning with initial exploration in 1952, which progressed slowly until major deposits were discovered in 1967 after which industrial scale mining began. Current customers were identified as France - including Cogema, as well as Sweden and Spain. Mr. Pyschersky indicated that Priargunsky uranium was still being marketed, out of Moscow, at the $18/kg rate though world spot market prices including potential, South African competitors, were quoted in the $35/kg range. Future operating plans were described as including expanded production of additional metals at the site, specifically expanded molybdenum production and initiation of gold using cyanide heap leaching methods.
Mr. Pyschersky was particularly concerned about two recent contacts with western organizations. From a business standpoint, the mine ownership group was severely damaged by losses due to failed business arrangements with companies controlled by Oren Benton, the center or a bankruptcy proceeding in US courts. Financial losses at Priargunsky from contracts with the web of companies controlled by Benton may be worth $600 million USD or more USD, a very significant blow to Mr. Pyschersky's organization. Bankruptcy proceeding have bend muddling along for more than 18 months.
On the international environmental front, operations have been the focus of a critical video by Greenpeace-Sweden which reportedly exposed a wide-spread lack of environmental controls at the site and the extremely high radiation levels in homes. The video is apparently available in Europe and has been shown to Russian national ministry officials in Moscow, but not yet available to the environmental managers at Krasnokamensk. Mr. Moskvin, who was not part of the Greenpeace tour of the site and has not seen the video, was specifically concerned about misrepresentations he was aware of related to conditions at Krasnokamensk as well as improper documentation, and the overall clandestine approach, for the Greenpeace video team. Subsequent to the Greenpeace video, the operations have also been subject to site visit by Swedish Radiation Protection Institute scientists - described by Uranium Institute newsbriefs as representatives of the Swedish mining industry - who reported that they did not identify any environmental or health hazards at the Krasnokamensk operations. This Swedish interest in the Krasnokamensk operations is likely to result from Sweden's role as a customer for Priargunsky uranium, and the debate over economic and environmental impacts of nuclear energy supply world wide; these event may be more prominent for the Priargunsky staff as they are the first flash of international media coverage of their formerly closed and controlled operations.
While the Swedish investigations may have had a functional value for the organizations conducting them, the Radiation Protection Institute or the Greenpeace, neither of the efforts were described as having identified the specific conditions at Krasnokamensk in any depth or detail, much less identified technological or financial responses to conditions observed. Greenpeace was reported to have offered to assist with the funding of relocation of residents of high radon homes, but no substantive action related to such an offers has been received by Priargunsky staff.
Following Mr. Pyschersky's overview, thorough and frank discussions with the chief ecologist at Krasnokamensk focused on several very large-scale water pollution problems which the operating firm is attempting to cope with currently. This specific and detailed review of major environmental problems by senior staff was in sharp contrast to the very broadly cast condemnation of the operation reported for the Greenpeace documentation, and the similarly general acceptance of environmental conditions on site by the Swedish Radiation Protection Institute.
Due to the extended discussion of these recognized pollution problem and a brief discussion of community-wide water concerns, no time was spent discussing current or future concepts related to mine reclamation, landscape restoration, or tailings facility closure and containment.
Mr. Moskvin indicated that contamination from this mine water discharge can be identified for 10 kilometers beyond the end of the end of pipe at Bambakai. Current handling of this mine water included use of ion-exchange technology to remove uranium, resulting in 10 tons per year of uranium being recovered. The content of other contaminants was not discussed. At the 150 cubic meters/hour mine water release rate for 17 years, the total amount of untreated waste water released was more than 22,300,000 cubic meters - more than 5,850,000,000 gallons or 17,955 acre-feet. Based on the 150 microroentgen/hour radioactive emission rate, the released mine water represents a total emission source of more than 197 roentgens/yr (197,000,000 microroentgens/year) and more than 3350 roentgens during the full 17-year discharge period. No information on the concentrations of heavy metal or radioactive pollutants in this waste water, other than the microroentgen emission rate, was provided.
At the 0.1% uranium ore grade, similar to that for US historic production, the Krasnokamensk operations would have been more than twice as large as the biggest US operations, the Quivira and Homestake sites in New Mexico. World-wide, only the tailings piles at the Elliot Lake sites in Ontario, Canada, the Wismut site in Thuringia and Saxony in eastern Germany, and the Namibian and South African sites would rival the scale of radioactive waste generation at Krasnokamensk.
Seepage from the tailings pond was described as highly acidic, a likely result of the addition of sulfuric acid to crushed ore for uranium which produces significantly elevated sulfate concentrations - typically up to 20,000 parts per million and a pH acidity of 1-2. This acidic waste stream, typical of unneutralized tailings following sulfuric acid treatment of the ore in the mill, can also be anticipated to contain significant concentrations of the radioactive decay product of uranium, heavy metals associated with the ore and soluble in sulfuric acid, as well as nitrate and chloride from process reagents. The area affected by this seepage problem is expanding rapidly as the front of this seepage plume has advancing steadily for years. The rate of advance of the seepage plume was indicated to have originally been 350 meters/year, with the current rate of advance at 150 meters/year. No estimated time period for the onset of this seepage was presented, though tailings production has been a fundamental part of the production of uranium since operations began in the late 1960's. Assuming only a ten year duration, this seepage problem would have produced a seepage plume between 1.5 - 3.5 kilometers beyond the tailings disposal area, based on reported seepage rates.
The chief ecologist attributed the seepage to leakage through a synthetic liner of unspecified construction detail, and indicated that a pump-back system had been installed to collect this acidic tailings drainage. This collected seepage is currently being disposed of at the leaking tailings ponds, maintaining the hydrostatic head in the tailings which is, at least in part, driving the seepage spreading process. Seepage collection wells surrounding the tailings ponds are used in this pump-back system, which may also be functioning in a manner which pulls seepage aware from the tailings, increasing the amount of acid drainage leaking from the tailings piles.
Mr. Moskvin indicated that more than 200 homes had been identified with elevated radon, distributed as follows:
> 1000 Bq/m3 -- 18 homes 400 - 1000 Bq/m3 -- 59 homes 200 - 400 Bq/m3 -- 151 homes
For comparison, a relevant US standard, the current EPA "action level" for indoor radon is 4 pCi/l, converts to approximately 150 Bq/m3. Mine administrators indicate that they have regularly written and asked Russian Federal agencies to provide financial support to assist with relocation of the most affected residents, but no response had been forthcoming. Mine administrators apparently have not been successful at implementing a locally developed solution to this exposure problem.
A brief discussion of this material, which included several papers specifically addressing uranium mill tailings seepage and reclamation matters among which were case studies and other published research by Paul Robinson, served as a basis for specific discussions of the current environmental problems at Krasnokamensk. This demonstrated interest in a practical level of technical exchange, helped break the ice at what was initially a very chilly reception in Krasnokamensk. A result of the bitter experiences involving the Greenpeace expose and the unpaid debts from the Concord Oil/Oren Benton bankruptcy. The anticipated lack of recent mine waste management and policy literature in this very isolated region was a basis for providing this substantial body of material at no cost.
The Octobrysky neighborhood with the most extreme radon levels appeared to be composed primarily of wooden homes and the neighborhood is within 200 meters of a mine shaft. As wood is commonly a low radon material, the source of the indoor radon is likely to be enriched uranium content of the soil, rock and ore located directly beneath the community. This may result in soil-derived radon gas, rather than construction materials being a primary source of local exposure.
Additional investigations are certainly appropriate to confirm and expand the existing data base on the indoor radon problem at Krasnokamensk and geologic data integrated into that research evaluate the soil-related portion of the current exposure pattern. Home-scale technology for air exchanges and ventilation techniques can also be applied as is the case for Baley. A wide array of remedies have been developed for US applications and these remedies have been the focus of technical discussion between US and Eastern governmental delegations, as documented in material provided to Mr. Moskvin. Comparison between Krasnokamensk exposures and health effects with other Russian sites and the group of communities world-wide which suffer from these pollutants can help identify effective approaches and raise Russian and international awareness of the problem.
The peak levels of indoor radon reported for Octobrysky are enormous; 28,000 Bq/m3, or 756 pCi/l, which is 190 times the action level for a US sites and 140 times the level of concern indicated by the staff ecologist. It is a level more likely to associated with an unventilated uranium mine, rather than a home radon concentration. A rapid response to this severe of an exposure is available, but bureaucratic obstacles are currently being allowed to prevent effective relocation or repair actions. If the high soil radon source of the current conditions at Octobrysky is verified, the community may be most effectively protected by a full relocation as the source may not be amenable to in-home repairs, and the site may be an area with potential ore grade material. The location of the homes above mine workings may suffer from significantly enhanced pre-mining radon level in the area due to radon migration through freshly fractured rock associated with the blasting of shaft and tunnels for the relatively shallow, less than 500 meter deep, underground mining.
The Soviet technique of building mine towns in and around the mine sites, at both Baley and Krasnokamensk, appears to have been a very effective way to establish a community in a high radiation area. Subjecting people to those hazards, and supplementing this relatively high background with construction materials made of tailings, are conditions were health risks are significantly increased, and can therefore be said to be a ecological catastrophe in the making. These conditions are especially disastrous for the people stuck with the problem who are unable for legal or economic reasons to leave these places where the risk was so enhanced by governmental policy, whether in the former Soviet Union or any other communities facing problems of environmental justice across the globe.
For a site which has produced 50 - 75,000,000 tons of tailings - enough to cover 200 hectares of land to a depth of more than 10 meters - the acidic tailings seepage from the tailings area indicates a wide spread environmental problem which will require both extensive, and expensive, remediation and reclamation for the existing site. And a comprehensive response should also include installation of a new, well-designed and constructed tailings repository for future wastes, as the containment system of the current pond has failed. The acidic tailings seepage is the most contaminated of the materials released by uranium mills such as those at Krasnokamensk as it is derived from the mixture of highly acidic mill chemicals and the crushed ore which contains the highest concentrations of uranium decay products and associated heavy metals.
The site owners and the surrounding communities are already aware of these problems at a general level, and local political candidates acknowledge them in the "ecological" aspects mentioned in campaign literature. However, the effort necessary to resolve the acknowledged water resource problems may themselves be dwarfed by the technological and financial challenges of effective long-term isolation and containment of the tailings and reclamation of the mined areas at Krasnokamensk.
The conditions on site are a direct consequence of the Soviet-era operation of the uranium mines at Krasnokamensk without effective management of environmental aspects of production and without restoration of contaminated areas, much less planning and design for reclamation and long-term containment of wastes. Mining operations without an environmental protection or closure plans were the normal operating approach in the US and other western countries before the wave of environmental awareness and standards in the 1970's. Similar operating conditions without effective pollution control and closure concepts were apparent at uranium sites in other centrally planned economies such as East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary prior to 1990, though notable surface water and groundwater contamination episodes have occurred in US, Canadian, South African and Australian operations in the past as well.
Currently many mining areas - US states such as Colorado and New Mexico, Canadian provinces including British Columbia, and eastern and western European countries, including Spain, Hungary and the Czech Republic - have effective instituted reclamation standards at major mining sites, including programs applicable to existing as well as new uranium and other metal mines. These programs in areas which have a long and active mining tradition provide a set of strong working models of the effective environmental controls for current and proposed mines in Russia.
Of the many large operations which have retrofit all or part of their operations with reclamation plans, readily accessible examples include the Jackpile uranium mine in New Mexico - the largest open pit uranium mine in the US - and the Bingham Canyon Mine in the US - the largest copper mine in the US. A growing number of examples effective reclamation and restoration techniques are available world-wide. US cases in this area are a focus of the USEPA Technical Resource Documents provided to Krasnokamensk representatives and INR in Chita. Additional examples can be drawn from Europe where fully reclaimed uranium sites can be found in both Spain and Sweden and substantial efforts are under way in Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
Sweden, for example, has a reclaimed uranium mine and mill complex at Ranstad which effectively demonstrates technology at the level of US and other international standards, including attention to long-term containment in a northern European setting. These examples do not appear have been a point of comparison for the Swedish investigators reporting on environmental conditions at Krasnokamensk.
This problem of "mining-plans-without-reclamation-plans" can be anticipated for the other existing mines in Russia, the majority of which are in Siberia and the Russian Far East. As some of the first and largest post-Soviet mining ventures in Asian Russia, the Baley and the Krasnokamensk mines, present technical challenges - upgrading old poorly operated workings to perform to international economic and environmental standards - like those facing regions elsewhere in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe as well as local and regional authorities in Chita. The feasibility study considering disposal sites for 90,000,000 tons of tailings and 500,000,000 tons of waste rock in the renewed mining at Baley, is useful as an initial point of action from a regional perspective. It is a proposal similar in scale to Krasnokamensk operations and addresses a wide range of the environmental parameters necessary to the establishment of environmental controls at mines utilizing non-Russian capital for future operations.
Krasnokamensk is certainly a critical focal point of Chita's regional policy "concerning environmental controls and needs for monitoring and oversight of economic activities of businesses using international capital", due to its size and current international market involvements. As the source of a major fraction of Siberia's hard currency exports (though perhaps less than the 32% share in 1993), Krasnokamensk certainly includes very substantial "economic activities ... using international capital". This role of international capital is also born out by the western European-based client list and the entanglements with the Benton bankruptcy and Swedish environmental politics. This international economic environment provide a clear basis for the application of ecological and environmental management norms and standards appropriate on an international level.
The lack of effective environmental controls screams out from of environmental damage and associated health risks already identified - from the radiation exposure in homes adjacent to mining operations and on high radiation ground to the discharge of untreated mine water and ineffective tailings liner. The urgent need for an effective comprehensive environmental assessment of the severity of conditions site-wide, including the already identified water resource and radon problems, is immediately apparent. Such an inquiry, conducted in a thorough manner - not a brief tour but a scientific investigation and including operator, regional government and independent expertise and a extensive sampling program - would allow a full characterization of the site conditions and the and focus attention on the effectiveness of current technology and provide a strong foundation for design and installation of the sorely needed environmental controls.
Discussions at Krasnokamensk included the identification of existing and emerging technology to respond to site-specific problems. These concerns were also a main discussion point following the site visit at the Institute of Natural Resources in Chita, from the perspective of region-wide policy needs and the means to address the first wave of major "international-investment-based" mining.
Financial resources are as important to repair of environmental damage as a technological solution, whether for an existing site with a acidic seepage problem like Krasnokamensk, or a future site where such problem can hopefully be prevented. Just as urgent is the establishment of financial assurance mechanisms to insure that operations allocate sufficient funds to repair of environmental damage and final reclamation of sites after closure. Such financial assurance mechanisms are increasingly common for uranium and other metal mines world-wide and should be a clearly identified economic planning or environmental management strategy for the operations.
Suggested technical approaches included low to moderate cost modifications of current practices as well as full-scale alternative technologies, with costs appropriate to full resolution of the large-scale extremely severe pollution problems at the site. Additional recommendations related to the locations of containment and pumping wells currently in place were suggested, responding to the potential that those wells were not fully effective at either containment or removal of the seepage plume. From the discussion at Krasnokamensk it appeared that several problems have be occurring at these wells: 1) the pumping approach in use may be pulling seepage away from the tailings ponds and spreading the problem as it removes a portion of the contaminants; and 2) the wells may not have been sufficiently well constructed, due to poor mechanical integrity of poorly located screened intervals to effectively remove or contain the seepage. Alternatives to consider include angle or horizontal drilling of wells to place monitoring and control systems immediately beneath the tailings ponds. An additional concept for remediation at the site would be establishment of a outer well system to inject water outside the plume to establish a groundwater mound subsequent reversal in the seepage flow direction.
Recommendations were also offered in terms of construction and operations of the pumping wells, such as a review of the mechanical integrity and screen placement in wells to insure that they are pumping only in affected zones and not a source seepage movement themselves. Full scale physical barriers to contain seepage, such as the subsurface barrier wall constructed to contain seepage at the New Wales phosphogypsum stack in Florida, may ultimately be appropriate if physical containment of the plume is found to be necessary and other remediation efforts at the site are ineffective.
Recent technical literature covering this array of existing and emerging technologies, specifically including pollution prevention methods and reclamation and restoration technology in place in the North American mining facilities, including uranium and gold mining operations, were among the materials provided to Mr. Moskvin at Krasnokamensk and Drs. Zamana and Strizhova at INR-Chita. This material will be a valuable source of existing and emerging technology to address the water resource problems as well as pit and waste rock dump reclamation and design and implementation of comprehensive environmental programs for current and future mine sites.
This material also includes substantial information on the management of uranium mill tailings and homes with tailings used in construction as part of the US Department of Energy's Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action Project. This program is part of an 18-year long effort to address US uranium problems and provides useful examples as well as problems to avoid from the US approach to problems currently existing at Krasnokamensk and Baley. Future presentation of information gathered during the trip to Chita with Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency staff in the US, among other contacts, may provide opportunity for future assistance on the environmental problems in uranium and other mining districts in Chita.
Options identified for consideration included a deepened drainage system using deepen ditches, collection trenches, gravel-filled infiltration galleries, or subsurface piping, to provide an array of collection points below the current water level. Rising water table conditions were described as a result of increased water encountered during mining including mine water formerly released at Bambakai. Developing a quantitative measure of current water management activities, including establishment of water balance relationships, should allow for more effective management of the current water supply. Selection of appropriate water uses after treatment, such as crop and pasture irrigation, or discharge to watersheds separate from the local ground water system, may also alleviate the problem in Krasnokamensk and make the water available for beneficial use. A more detail understanding of shallow ground water flow system would provide a strong basis for selection of future drainage, treatment and discharge options.
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