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State officials address concerns of uranium in groundwater

DICKINSON - Following a meeting in Belfield last week regarding uranium mining, several Billings County residents wondered about the quality of their drinking water.

DICKINSON - Following a meeting in Belfield last week regarding uranium mining, several Billings County residents wondered about the quality of their drinking water.

During the April 30 meeting hosted by the Badlands Area Resource Council, Dr. Lilias Jarding raised several points that caused concern among those in attendance; mainly whether or not their drinking water was unsafe because of mining done in the 1960s and 70s.

Kris Roberts, an environmental geologist for the North Dakota Department of Health's water quality division said uranium in groundwater is naturally occurring and not a result of mining.

"Uranium in the groundwater in southwest North Dakota is purely naturally occurring," Roberts said. "...To say that past mining released uranium into the ground water is not true."

Roberts conducted a study in 1990-91, which analyzed the concentration of uranium in private wells throughout western North Dakota. The wells chosen were those located in areas where the topography matched up with areas where the concentration of uranium is historically high, but had not been previously mined.

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In Roberts study, the sampling area consisted of; Adams, Billings, Bowman, Dunn, Hettinger, Slope and Stark counties.

"What we found was that there were many areas that had elevated concentrations of naturally occurring uranium," Roberts said.

Two previous studies have been conducted regarding the same topic, the first by Dr. Cooper Land in 1975-1977 at the height of uranium mining activity in the country and another in 1979 by the Department of Energy. All three of the studies came to similar conclusions.

"The health department has done studies in western North Dakota on uranium in groundwater," director of the state health department's division of waste management Scott Radig said. "It does show there are areas not anywhere near the former mines that are high in uranium...If a person's water well is in an area where a company is looking at mining that means that there is likely uranium already in their water."

Roberts study concludes, "A weighted average of all three surveys showed that 18.2 percent of the water supplies in southwestern North Dakota have uranium levels potentially exceeding 20 micrograms per liter (ug/L) uranium, and 3.5 percent have levels potentially exceeding 100 ug/L.

The Environmental Protection Agency's standard for dissolved uranium in a water supply is 30 ug/L in public drinking water; therefore there were some samples in the three studies that exceeded this limit.

State geologist for the North Dakota geological survey, Ed Murphy, said if an individual is concerned the best they thing they can do is test their water supply.

"If I had a well out in southwest North Dakota, if I had a well anywhere I would have it tested just to see what I was drinking," Murphy said. "We don't want to alarm people, but it's a good idea for people to know what they're drinking."

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If someone is interested in getting their water tested for uranium, there are two locations they can send a water sample, the state chemistry lab in Bismarck or Minnesota Valley testing laboratories in Bismarck.

The tests are not free but range from $25-100 depending on if you test just for uranium or also include major ions such as calcium, sodium, magnesium, iron, manganese, chlorides, sulfates, and bicarbonate in the test, which Roberts recommends.

Roberts said even if a test shows a water supply falling above 30 ug/L, that doesn't mean it is undrinkable.

"Today what we would say is if the uranium concentration in your drinking water supplies are below 30 ug/L we would consider that a very acceptable water supply with respect to uranium," Roberts said. "We also determined at that time that people with water supplies that were above 30 ug/L and below 100 ug/L should be aware and determine what level of risk they wish to take. If the water supply had uranium concentrations greater than 100 ug/L we strongly recommend that they seek some type of water treatment system that would lower the uranium concentration."

Studies on the side effects of long term uranium exposure are scarce and "long-term consumption of water containing over 100 ug/L would probably pose little or no health risk, except to hyper sensitive individuals," Roberts' study states.

Roberts said there is little for the residents of western North Dakota to worry about regarding water quality if uranium mining begins again in the region.

In fact, state regulations require uranium mining companies to re-stabilize the water present at the site to its pre-mining state before leaving the area, including but not limited to uranium.

Testing continues following the abandonment of a site and if the environmental measurements drop below acceptable levels the company must return to fix it.

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"From everything that we've been able to find out it is safe," Roberts said. "It will be highly regulated and highly monitored."

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