Friday, June 23, 2000

Reclamation complete at state's first uranium mill

JEFFREY CITY, Wyo. (AP) - Officials with the company that owns the state's first uranium mill say they are optimistic that federal regulators will deem the site successfully reclaimed.

Thirteen years of reclaiming the Split Rock Mill and Cody Shale Pit near Jeffrey City concluded two years ago.

"Now we're waiting to see if the grass grows," Western Nuclear radiation safety officer Trinidad Herrera said. "We're required to have two growing seasons. This is our second one."

The mill tailings site will eventually be turned over to the U.S. Department of Energy. Department officials and representatives of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have toured the area.

Western Nuclear officials say it is only a matter of waiting for the department's final report and decision on when the agency will assume ownership.

Herrera expects the report to be positive.

"They said it looks good," he said.

The Split Rock Mill opened in 1957 and provided jobs for almost 5,000 employees until 1981, when a severe drop in the domestic market forced its closure.

Though reclamation is complete, much work remains.

Employees continually sample monitoring wells to ensure water quality around the tailings pond.

Other work involves fixing wells, grading roads, mending fences, "whatever it takes to keep it working," Herrera said.

The main purpose of reclamation is to encapsulate radon gas, an element produced by decaying uranium. A layer of clay, varying from 16 to 48 inches thick, slows or prevents passage of radon gas through the soil.

So far, no radon gas has been detected, Herrera said. Radon gas detectors are set up every 50 feet on the cap area.

About 250 acres at the former mill site are now under the cap. The entire reclamation area is about 700 acres.

With a layer of dirt to protect the clay, and rocks on the soil to prevent erosion, the reclaimed site is designed to last 1,000 years.

Grass in many areas is growing, as are plants such as Indian rice grass, tumbleweed, clover and sagebrush.

"You'll always be able to tell that there was a mill site here," Herrera said, "because it just looks different. But what we did is protect the environment, protect the public and allow wildlife to return."

Herrera has spotted antelope, deer and buzzards on the grassy plain surrounded by granite rock.

"We have a mountain lion here somewhere," Herrera said. "Some of the guys have seen it, and we've seen tracks."

After spending years working in underground uranium mines, Herrera is enjoying monitoring the reclamation site.

And, he said, "I got my suntan back."