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White Mesa Uranium Investigation

Project Chief: David Naftz, USGS Salt Lake City, Utah
Cooperator: USEPA and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe
Period of Project: September 2007 to September 2010 (complete)

PROBLEM

The White Mesa Uranium Mill has been processing uranium from source rock and various recycled materials since 1979. The facility contains tailings ponds used for the storage of waste water and unprotected piles of material to be processed. Aquifers in the vicinity of the White Mesa Uranium Mill are used by the Ute Mountain Ute tribal members. Water in a shallow aquifer down gradient of the mill is the source of numerous springs used by tribal members for drinking, for watering cattle, and by wildlife hunted by tribal members. A well completed in a deeper aquifer down gradient of the Mill is the principal source of drinking water to tribal members living in the town of White Mesa, Utah, about 3 miles from the Mill. There is concern among tribal members and their resource managers about possible ground water contamination by leakage from the tailings ponds. The proximity of the mill to the Ute Mountain Ute reservation has also raised concern about possible health effects of any uranium released into the atmosphere from the day-to-day operations of the mill or blown from the materials being stored there prior to processing. Resource managers and tribal members are in need of additional information on the fate of mill processing and waste material and currently active or potential contaminant transport pathways.

OBJECTIVES

The objectives of this study to improve our understanding of the transport or uranium emissions from the White Mesa Uranium Mill and the vulnerability of local ground water and air quality to contamination from these emissions.

RELEVANCE AND BENEFITS

The proposed study has several important benefits for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe in the future management and use of their ground-water supply including a better understanding of (1) the factors that affect the transport of uranium released into ground water from any source and (2) the variability in the concentration of uranium in springs and ground water in the study area. Such knowledge can help identify the location of springs and shallow ground water that may present health risks to tribal members or be vulnerable to future contamination from local surface sources. The proposal also addresses USGS activities as described in the USGS Strategic Plan, 2007 to 2017 (U.S. Geological Survey, 2007), to meet the needs for earth science information critical for developing strategies for protection of ground-water resources.

APPROACH

The approach to achieving study objective includes Determining the natural background level of uranium and radioactivity in ground water relative to any that may be released from the mill through review of existing data and the establishment of water chemistry monitoring at sites up and down gradient of the mill site. Also includes determining the short and long-term susceptibility of the study area aquifer system through development of field-data based conceptual and computer models of ground-water flow patterns and water-rock interaction.

PRODUCTS

To the extent possible, all physical and chemical data generated during the project will be stored in the USGS National Water Information System (NWIS). The results of the study will be published as a USGS Scientific Investigations Report. An oral presentation will be given to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe each year to discuss the progress made during the previous year.

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Page Last Modified: Friday, 30-Aug-2013 13:21:24 EDT