North Dakota Wary of Renewed Uranium Interest
BELFIELD, N.D. - Geiger counters were a hot item in this small town a half century ago. Nearly every business, including the pool hall, sold the instruments to wannabe uranium prospectors.
What's going on is a renewed interest in uranium exploration in the West. Worldwide demand for nuclear power pushed the price of uranium from roughly $7 a pound in 2002 to about $135 by midsummer. It dropped to around $90 in late August.
North Dakota state geologist Ed Murphy said his office is beginning to field inquiries from mining companies interested in staking new claims - the first since the state's uranium mines shut down in the late 1960s.
"We've got a lot of people looking," he said.
Many locals wish the radioactive element had never been found in their backyards. They lament the environmental damage caused by the unregulated uranium mines and fret about lingering threats to their health.
Some accused the mines of causing livestock to glow and humans to die of cancer. Health officials have said they found no evidence of either.
An industry representative agrees that uranium mining companies are grappling with their past.
"There are legacy issues," said Jon Indall, attorney for Uranium Producers of America, a trade group that represents more than a dozen companies.
"We're willing to work with states and everybody else to make sure it's done right this time," he said. "We feel it can be done in a safe manner."
Cory Smith, 36, who ranches near Belfield, said he was approached in early August by a speculator wanting to lease rights for uranium exploration.
"I wouldn't take a million dollars," he said.
Both of his grandfathers, who had uranium mines named for them, died of cancer at a young age, Smith said. Another rancher in the area, who had a mine named for him, also died young of cancer, he said.
No studies have been done on the number of people in the area who died of cancer, said Dave Glatt, a state Health Department official. The region's sparse population - Belfield has only about 880 residents - renders any attempt to link cancer to uranium mining statistically inaccurate, he added.
Federal Department of Energy studies determined "that the health risk was low related to those sites," Glatt said.
Uranium was mined from at least nine sites in southwestern North Dakota. The exact number is unknown because of poor record-keeping by the state and by mining companies, Murphy said.
Mining companies burned lignite, often called brown coal, to reach the uranium within it, Murphy said. Companies used old tires or diesel fuel to ignite the open pits. The uranium-laden ash was then shipped to Utah, Colorado or South Dakota to be processed further, he said.
Uranium mining nationwide predated federal regulations. North Dakota adopted regulations in 1968, a year after uranium mining stopped in the state, Murphy said.
Lesley Fritz, 92, said he's proof that the mines did not cause cancer in everyone who lived near them. The Fritz Mine near Belfield bears his name. However, the mines did have an affect on local cattle during the 1960s, he said.
"You could see a different tinge to their hair color," Fritz said.
Stan Soderstrom's late father, Stanley, said in a newspaper article in the early 1970s that his sheep "glowed a blue hue" and he suspected uranium mining was the cause.
"I believe it caused a lot of health problems but I've never been satisfied with the answers," Stan Soderstrom said. "A lot of people are still complaining about the long-term effects."
All but one of the known uranium mine sites in North Dakota have been cleaned up, said Jim Deutsch, who heads the state's Public Service Commission's reclamation division.
"We didn't get access from the landowner to go in and reclaim it," he said of the remaining site.
A total of 460 acres was reclaimed, at a cost of $3.2 million, he said. The work was financed by a federal abandoned mine reclamation fund, supported by a tax that coal companies pay.
North Dakota's mines produced about 592,000 pounds of uranium oxide while they were in operation between 1962 and 1967, Murphy said. New mines probably would produce a greater amount, he said.
Any new mining would involve a process that uses chemicals and water to leach out uranium and pump it to the surface. None of the mines would become burning pits - a process Murphy calls "an environmental disaster."
© 2007 The Associated Press