by Rebecca Boyle,
February 11, 2008
GOLIAD, Texas -- The first sign that there might be something wrong with the water on Craig Duderstadt's south Texas ranch was when the cows wouldn't drink.
Last summer, they began to bypass their groundwater well-fed trough, preferring to drink from a muddy puddle of rainwater.
"This is a full water trough, and they'd walk a couple hundred yards and drink from a water hole. They'd walk right past that water trough," Duderstadt said. "You can't make 'em drink."
About that same time, the well water used inside the house for everything from showering to drinking started running red and slimy. A well filter that would normally last six months plugged up in a matter of hours. Craig and his wife, Luann, stopped drinking the water too.
LIVING WITH URANIUM SERIES
With the possibility of a Powertech in-situ uranium mine opening near Nunn in the no-too-distant-future, The Tribune examines similar mining operations in Wyoming and Texas in a three-part series on uranium mining and how other communities are dealing with the same issue:
- Sunday: Wyoming communities balance economics with health concerns of mining uranium
- Monday: Many residents in Goliad, Texas, are blaming an in-situ mining company for ruining groundwater and not adhering to safe practices
- Tuesday: Learn the science behind uranium extraction, how it is made into nuclear power and how that can help fight global warming.
A Culligan driver now brings four blue jugs of clean water a month from Victoria, the nearest big town, about a 30-minute drive northeast.
The culprit, they say, is a uranium mining operation 1,250 feet from their front door.
They say the water turns bad when the mining company drills exploration wells nearby.
The resurgent field of in-situ uranium mining throughout the American West has forged a new kind of pioneer, one who still fights for land and water on the plains but must oppose a well-heeled, highly technical modern foe. It's different than oil and gas production, which is as familiar to the West as open fields and thunder, and it's prompted a new wave of education and employment on both sides.
In Goliad, Texas, ranchers and residents are trying to stop a newly formed company from extracting uranium from the ground using their groundwater.
The fight against in-situ uranium mining in south Texas is similar to a battle brewing in northern Colorado. There are differences, to be sure, but in both places, the fight comes down to water and the fundamental fact that it is essential to life.
It's an especially tough issue for people who long thought they could count on that water to work on the land and earn a peaceful living.
But as the Duderstadts and their neighbors have learned, nothing is ever certain.
The third-generation farm Craig and Luann Duderstadt share with two dogs and three horses is a comfortable, quiet place where butterfly weeds grow along the patio and where ball moss, blown in one day on a hurricane, makes its home on the inner branches of giant live oak trees.
A bull watches visitors with suspicion from a small barn across the yard, and a spare water trough behind the house betrays the Duderstadts' fondness for creatures of all sizes--it's dedicated especially for wildlife and the many migratory birds who pass through Texas' Coastal Bend region.
Atop the wooden kitchen table at the center of the old farmhouse is the first sign that this is not an average Texas ranch, however.
Next to a ceramic vase and a candy bowl is a framed photograph of a billboard in Victoria: "Help Stop Uranium Mining."
Luann sifts through a plastic tub of papers and files she has amassed about uranium mining, Texas land law and her cohorts in the fight against Uranium Energy Corporation. Like Powertech Uranium Corp., which wants to mine in northern Colorado, UEC is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, has a corporate office in the capital city of the state they're exploring for uranium, and set up a field office in the town where their opponents live.
The people of the South Texas Crossroads region are largely ranchers and farmers, salt-of-the-earth people. They wear cowboy boots because of the mud, not the style.
Their cattle, including Hereford and Texas Longhorns, drink from troughs fed by the groundwater -- until last summer when uranium exploration operations began in earnest.
Luann is Texas-style blunt and does not seem given to hyperbole; it's clear that raw emotions feed her activism against an operation she believes will poison her water beyond repair.
Until two summers ago, the Duderstadts' lives consisted of farming and ranching and generally appreciating south Texas life at the end of a fulvous gravel road. Since Uranium Energy Corp., a newly formed company, starting drilling exploration and test wells for uranium, her water and her life have both changed for the worse.
She said she is committed to helping stop the "environmental disaster" she believes is inevitably wrought by this type of mining.
Since the water turned bad in 2007, the Duderstadts have tested it for radionuclides and other material and will probably do it again, but each time a baggie of the red stuff is sent to the water district, the Duderstadts fork over $400. Some tests have shown elevated levels of iron. The Duderstadts can't afford to test it as regularly as they'd like.
The mining company and the Texas Railroad Commission, which has jurisdiction over mining exploration, have told the Duderstadts the uranium exploration has nothing to do with the changes in their well water, and that in the areas near where the uranium ore is found, it is undrinkable anyway.
But the Duderstadts and generations of many other families have lived in the area and have been drinking the water for a hundred years, and their relatives say it has never been red.
The families said any changes that are directly related to the mining or exploration are just tough luck. There is no recompense.
"You don't see them paying the Culligan man for bringing all this water, and you don't see them coming to my door to ask me, either, because they don't give a damn," Luann said.
The Duderstadts have about 15 cattle on the 150-acre property and several more nearby. Craig has been slowly moving them to other ranchland.
Loss of livestock income is not an option in historic Goliad, which extols itself as the birthplace of Texas ranching. The town, whose population was 1,975 in 2000, is one of the oldest municipalities in Texas. In 1749, Spanish settlers established a mission and a fort, in an area that was then called Santa Dorotea. Presidio la Bahía, the "fort by the bay," is still nestled on the southern bank of the San Antonio River.
About a 90-mile drive upriver is the famous Alamo, but Goliad is the site where Texians stormed the garrison, defeated the Mexican troops and first declared their independence from Mexico as the Republic of Texas, in 1835.
Now, as they fight to keep their land from a more modern foe, the residents of Goliad are prepared to make another historic stand.
Making a stand
Goliad's fight started almost two years ago, when UEC began knocking on doors.
Not all residents had an intrinsic bad feeling about uranium mining--this is oil and gas country, after all, and residents are more than accustomed to trucks and pipes and drill rigs dotting the landscape.
What's more, the company arrived with promises to be good neighbors, offering handshakes, scholarships for local high school students and, as some residents recall, hams and cookies delivered to landowners.
But then they poisoned the land, some believe--UEC improperly filled some of its initial drill holes, resulting in radioactive soil around the boreholes.
Residents started to worry, and the history of south Texas uranium operations did little to ease their fears. People knew of uranium mining operations in next-door Karnes County through the 1980s, and a history of spills and contamination fears from in-situ uranium operations in Kleberg County's Kingsville, about two hours' drive south.
UEC started drilling exploration boreholes in Goliad in May 2006, in an area about 15 miles north of the town. That fall, amid growing concerns about groundwater, the county commissioners passed a resolution opposing the proposed mining operation; formed a uranium research and advisory board; and voted to spend $150,000 to hire an attorney, anticipating a legal battle to fight the state's decision, if it is so made, allowing the mining company to move forward.
Commissioner Jim Kreneck said he's lost some support and even some friends because of his outspoken opposition to the project. But as a rancher and public official, his concern for the water supersedes any political ideology that might otherwise bend him the opposite direction. The taxpayers are the ones who must ultimately pay, he said.
After the uranium committee formed, local opposition started growing, said Art Dohmann, president of the Goliad County Groundwater Conservation District.
The bad blood began flowing in earnest in spring 2007.
That April, several residents, including the Duderstadts, complained to the water district that their wells were being plugged up with slimy red sediment.
The water district tested the residential wells and found "significant changes" in iron and other mineral content in four of the wells; a fifth had only turned red, according to Dohmann.
On top of that, the Texas Railroad Commission couldn't find any holes using company-provided GPS coordinates, and the wells they were able to find were surrounded by piles of radioactive dirt because the holes had been improperly refilled.
Residents seized upon those violations as proof that UEC had already shirked its environmental responsibility and would continue to do so.
Harry Anthony, chief operating officer of the uranium company, told residents at a formal meeting Jan. 24 that those violations happened because UEC used a different method than previously chosen to plug the holes. The new method, using cement, is better, but state regulators had expected something different and that's why the company was cited; he said the company's permit has been modified to reflect the change, and the company bought better GPS devices.
But residents' concerns took off from the first violation, so they were already primed for a fight when, last August, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality notified residents that UEC had applied for an underground injection control permit. It is the first step needed to begin in-situ leaching of uranium from the rock.
Powertech Uranium Corp. is about a year away from filing a permit to do the same in northern Colorado.
As the state reviews UEC's permit, residents grow more fearful.
Margaret Rutherford, a resident who started a group called Uranium Information At Goliad, said she has felt intimidated. Health problems led her to step down recently as the group's president, but she's still involved and said her newspaper, for which she writes a column about uranium, has been repeatedly stolen. She even thinks someone may have tapped her phone.
Rutherford said she worries about her water and health but also her land and her home, where her late husband's carvings are still embedded in the wood. Her memories live there and she doesn't want to abandon them. She has nowhere else to go.
Though she has many allies in her struggle, the issue has divided the community. Members of Rutherford's own family have willingly leased their land and support UEC, to her great chagrin.
Her aunt and uncle, Joe and Betty Jacob, even had their pictures included in a 3/4-page newspaper ad UEC took out in the Victoria Advocate, the larger local paper. Her aunt was quoted saying the project would be "a great blessing for the county."
Luann Duderstadt and Rutherford scoff that they're just in it for the money, and that opponents outnumber the willing participants. The opponents hope the state can help.
Unified by fear
The Duderstadts, Rutherford and about 400 of their neighbors turned out for a meeting with state officials Jan. 24, the one in which Anthony explained the company's violations.
The meeting was sponsored by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, TCEQ, along with the mining company.
During exploration, which is ongoing, the Texas Railroad Commission has jurisdiction. Mining requires a separate permit from the TCEQ, which is still pending. UEC's application in Goliad is about a year ahead of the proposed project in northern Weld County.
So many people turned out for the meeting about Goliad that the Texas Rangers came to provide security. In fact, so many people were there in opposition, Sherilyn Arnecke said, that the quiet base of support for the mining operation was nervous to speak.
She appeared in that newspaper ad with Rutherford's aunt, and has been one of only a couple to stick her neck out in favor of UEC.
"We don't have the money to hire lawyers to come in here, and we don't have all the facts and figures, but there are a bunch of us," she said.
She said her elderly parents have been harassed because they leased with UEC, and she found that unacceptable and was motivated to speak in favor of it.
"I don't feel like I've been lied to. There are a lot of people for this, but you don't see them in here, because they're afraid to come in here and face this bunch," she said.
Sidney Braquet, an attorney who owns land in Goliad and also supports UEC, said his family's roots in the county go back to the 1800s and he wouldn't jeopardize his family land. He said Goliad residents should not fall victim to misinformation and fear, and that nuclear power is a good option.
"Why not use what south Texas has to offer to reduce our reliance on foreign sources for our energy future?" he said.
A few clapped for Arnecke and Braquet, but most of those who asked questions and read formal statements opposed the company's efforts.
Even before the residents spoke, Anthony said claims were unfounded. His comments were echoes of the arguments used by Powertech to quell concern and opposition to its project in Nunn.
"This project will not adversely affect the groundwater, nor will it cause other concerns," he said. "We're well aware that many people have concerns about this project. I respect those concerns and so does the company. We wouldn't have undertaken this project if those concerns were even partially true."
Anthony is among a small group of people who blazed trails decades ago for this form of mining, saying it is better for human and environmental health and safety. No pits or caverns involved; it is not even really mining in the traditional sense, but a chemical process that, for a moment, reverses the work of millions of years.
Anthony said UEC just wants to recover some of Goliad County's "ample resources" in order to power potential nuclear power plants in the U.S.--including one that just filed a permit application in Victoria, the first newly licensed nuclear plant in 30 years.
Whether residents agree with nuclear power or not, the needs for new energy are clear. Anthony is far from the only one promoting nuclear as a homegrown solution. It's a reflection of the odd, unlikely alliances that are formed in this field.
Fear seems to be a unifying emotion, despite how hard the companies try to convince residents their operations will be safe.
Some Goliad residents who oppose UEC agree that the land will be the same after the mining is completed. and some even say they support mining; the difference, they say, is that they don't want it in their water source.
On his Web site, Goliadproject.com, Mark Krueger, a Victoria County resident who is friends with the Duderstadts, said he is not against mining on the whole.
"I DO oppose uranium mining in a people's drinking water supply! In-situ leach mining needs to be done in remote areas, not in my (your) water supply until it can be proven to be 100 percent safe!" he wrote.
At the meeting last month, he asked if that was possible. Krueger waited until the end of the question period to take the microphone. His last question:
"Is it possible that one well, one well for human water consumption, could be contaminated in Goliad County? Yes or no question. Does the possibility exist?"
The audience watched expectantly.
Tara Drissell, with the office of public assistance for the TCEQ, turned to her colleagues on the left and to the UEC table on her right. She paused for a moment and looked at him with an uneven, almost exasperated expression.
"Nothing is 100 percent," she said.