In-situ leach process drives Wyoming uranium ambitions

In-situ leach process drives Wyoming uranium ambitions
2010-09-30T00:00:00Z 2010-09-30T08:11:20Z In-situ leach process drives Wyoming uranium ambitionsBy JEFF GEARINO - Star-Tribune staff writer Casper Star-Tribune Online
September 30, 2010 12:00 am  • 

LARAMIE -- Since the recovery of uranium prices around 2003, there has been a lot of activity as uranium companies scramble to open new mines or expand production in existing mines.

In-situ leaching will be the preferred method of recovering uranium in the majority of those new mines, including those on Wyoming's planning board.

And while in-situ mining is not without environmental risks, the Cowboy State will benefit from the revival of the industry in Wyoming, officials say.

Industry officials touted the benefits of in-situ uranium mining during a recent, daylong University of Wyoming-sponsored forum on the future of uranium in Wyoming.

They said the key to uranium's comeback in Wyoming has been the development of better in-situ leaching processes to recover uranium reserves.

The process involves injecting an environmentally benign water and sodium bicarbonate solution down a series of injection wells to flow through the target sandstone containing uranium ore.

The process dissolves the uranium to mix with the liquid solution and it is brought to the surface through production wells.

On the surface, the solution is processed through a water treatment facility to separate the uranium. It is then "dried" to produce U308, or yellowcake, for transport.

Since 1995, Wyoming has led the country in uranium production, with two licensed in-situ recovery facilities in operation, the Smith Ranch-Highland and Christensen Ranch facilities.

Wyoming's lone operating in-situ facility, Cameco Resources Inc.'s Smith Ranch-Highland operation in Converse County, produced approximately 1.8 million pounds of uranium in 2009. It is the largest in-situ uranium facility in the country, with approximately 147 employees and 50 contract workers.

The operation has a production capacity of 2 million pounds of uranium per year.

The Christensen Ranch ISR facility is undergoing refurbishment and is expected to resume operations in 2011.

Advantages

Industry officials contend the in-situ process has minimal environmental impact when compared to conventional oil and gas drilling, and coal mining.

Tom Cannon, general manager of Cameco Resources' Smith Ranch-Highland facility, said with in-situ mining, there's less land disturbance, no mining dust, no tailings or tailing ponds to deal with.

He said the industry boasts a good workers safety record and brings high-paying jobs to the state.

"The advantages of in-situ recovery include minimal environmental impacts," Cannon said at the forum. "It protects water, land and wildlife ... the industry has exceptional worker safety and in-situ (allows for) a very economical recovery of low grade uranium."

At the Smith Ranch-Highland facility -- and with most of Wyoming's reserves, which number the highest in the nation at around 220 million pounds -- the uranium ore occurs at depths between 600 and 1,000 feet underground.

The uranium is contained in "roll-front" sandstone deposits that are often confined by impervious shale formations.

The sandstone also holds water, so the whole leaching process is about water control.

Injection and production wells are drilled in a tight pattern (usually within 30 yards), which doesn't cover a large land area, thus fewer environmental impacts.

Cannon said groundwater movement monitoring wells are drilled around the production field to contain the process.

He said only non-drinking water aquifers are tapped for water that is not fit for human consumption, precisely because it contains uranium.

Economics

Jobs in Wyoming's uranium industry have increased from 134 in 2003 to 301 in 2008, according to an economic analysis of uranium production in Wyoming by David "Tex" Taylor, University of Wyoming professor of agriculture and applied economics.

Taylor examined the economic impacts of Cameco Resources Wyoming operations.

He said the company spends about $40 million annually to operate its Smith Ranch-Highland facilities near Douglas.

He said the company provides "good paying jobs," with an average employee pay scale of around $73,000 per year. Secondary contractors in the industry average about $56,000 per year in income at the facility.

Taylor said the industry as a whole doesn't generate near the revenues for state coffers that oil and gas and coal generate.

The uranium industry is taxed in Wyoming at a rate of about $1,861 per ton of yellowcake. The state revenue from mineral taxes for uranium production in Wyoming in 2008 was $1.15 million, according to state figures.

He said for every five drums of yellowcake produced at the facility, one job is supported and approximately $8,800 in taxes and royalties are paid.

And the industry's future economic outlook appears promising, according to Glenn Catchpole, CEO of Uranerz Energy Corp.

Catchpole said Wyoming could be looking at 12 new in-situ mining operations opening in the state over the next decade or so.

He said the 12 new mines could bring upwards of 1,500 new quality jobs in Wyoming, while increasing the state's uranium output to as much as 12 million pounds per year in the future.

The mines could provide a "significant tax" revenue for Wyoming in the $60 million per year range, he said.

Risks

Conservationists, however, worry about the possible risks to water resources from in-situ mining and the reclamation of uranium mining sites once mining is completed.

Conservationists expressed concerns about possible groundwater contamination during the in-situ process. They contend it's likely groundwater impacts will occur because of connectivity between aquifers.

"The water may be contained in the target reservoir or it may communicate with those overlying aquifers," said Erik Molvar, executive director of the Laramie-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance.

He said the uranium production occurs between shale-layered seals, which can fracture or default. That in turn leads to the potential for excursions of uranium fluids between aquifers.

Molvar questioned whether in-situ uranium facilities can be successfully reclaimed and restored to their original use after mining operations cease.

"And what happened if those sites can't be reclaimed because the company went bankrupt and is out of business and the bonding is not enough to pay for the reclamation?" he said. "The taxpayers will end up eating the costs."

Molvar said there is also the potential for habitat fragmentation from in-situ recovery mining, which could hurt big game, sage grouse and other wildlife.

"Uranium mining uses smaller pads that are more tightly packed ... but you still lose that habitat function ... especially when you add in the oil and gas development that is already ongoing in some of these sites," he said.

"There are similar impacts to oil and gas (with in-situ leaching) ... that will result in similar consequences for big game," he said. "It cascades all the way down the ecosystem."

Copyright 2015 Casper Star-Tribune Online. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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