In mid-September, five Department of Energy (DOE) employees and a journalist toured the Cactus Rat Group area of the Thompson-Yellow Cat Mining District in Grand County, Utah, north of Arches National Park. Here, the landscape is dotted with abandoned uranium mines—approximately 100 in this nearly 6-acre site. More than 3,400 defense-related uranium mines are scattered across the Four Corners region, abandoned prior to state and federal mining and reclamation laws, standards, and regulations established during the 1970s.
The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) incentivized uranium mining between the 1940s and 1970s in order to develop its nuclear weapons arsenal. As the successor to the AEC, the Department of Energy initiated DRUM in 2017—its Defense-Related Uranium Mine program—to safeguard Cold War-era abandoned mine sites. The program is managed by the DOE’s Office of Legacy Management.
“We carved out money,” ($21 million thus far, from 2017-2020) from the DOE’s Office of Legacy Management, according to Jay Glascock, Uranium Mine Team Supervisor for the agency’s DRUM program. “We feel a responsibility,” he added, to remove immediate physical hazards left by these abandoned mines.
“Our objective is to visit each site; put boots on the ground,” DRUM Project Manager Brent Lewis said. “Originally we did not have authority to do safeguarding.” Instead, the actual safeguarding was the responsibility of land agencies—like the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and U.S. Forest Service—public lands on which mines are often located.
“We were serving up on a silver platter (the documented hazards) to all the land managers, but they didn’t have the resources to do anything. We realized the severity, the preponderance of risk; We requested authority. We’re leveraging resources; we offset their costs.”
Typically, there is no signage warning people of the presence of abandoned mines, or hazards associated with the sites. People fall or drive into open mine shafts that can be hundreds of feet deep. Mine openings (called adits) are often concealed by dirt, rock, mine debris or water. Cave-ins occur; undetonated explosives can be triggered; and lethal gases like methane, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and toxic levels of carbon dioxide can accumulate in underground passages and near mine entrances. According to the BLM, 381 people died, and 152 suffered broken bones and other injuries at abandoned mine sites between 2000-2013.
Lewis helped kickstart the DRUM program in 2017, after working with abandoned mines and as an advisor for CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act) during his 25-year prior career with the BLM.
Using decades-old ore receipts, company records, available mine maps, and GPS software, DRUM field teams drive or hike into often remote areas to locate the mines. They then survey the sites for geological, ecological, and radiological data, recording any immediate physical hazards. DRUM’s purpose is to document dangers left by these abandoned mines and then develop a plan for safeguarding the sites. Campaign 1 began in 2017, and focuses on mines located on public lands; Campaign 2, which is set to start in 2022, addresses abandoned mines on tribal lands; and Campaign 3, scheduled to start in 2024, will survey sites on private property. The program is slated to end in 2030.
Mary Young and Ian Shafer, of Grand Junction, Colorado, worked for three years as contractors doing field surveys before being hired by the DOE as DRUM project managers. During the September tour, they showed how their four-member field survey team—including an ecologist, a geologist, a radiologist, and a lead person—walk the boundaries of a disturbed area to collect information prior to safeguarding the site. Surveyors look for debris, erosion, waste rock piles, nearby drainages where offsite migration of contaminants may occur, and areas where there’s a sudden sinking in the soil (called a subsidence)—where the ground caves-in beneath your feet and can cause injuries to humans and wildlife. At this Yellow Cat site, there’s an underground maze of tunnels created by miners in search of ore—tunnels that contribute to the earth’s instability here. DRUM teams also note the size and number of openings in the mines.
Yellow Cat’s Cactus Rat Group mining area was safeguarded in 2018 by the BLM and Freeport-McMoRan, a Phoenix-based mining company, after a DRUM team surveyed and reported its findings and recommendations.
Among the cluster of old mines, Young points out two modern claims—notarized documents nailed to wooden posts that state current prospectors’ intent to mine if the need and cost for uranium increases someday.
Near one of the mines Shafer looks at his handheld dosimeter to check the natural background radiation level (it’s 8 micro R per hour) before walking across the top of a nearby waste pile, where the reading rose to 18—still considered low, an “insignificant change,” he said. Radiological technicians carry gamma radiation detectors during field surveys to measure and keep track of their exposure and collect environmental site-specific radiological data.
Five years of data show minimal radiation exposure from the sites, Glascock said. A person would have to camp for two weeks each year for 26 consecutive years to be at higher risk of contracting cancer, he noted. (Two weeks is the amount of time campers are allowed to stay at a public lands campsite before they’re required to move). While DRUM monitors radiation levels, the program isn’t authorized to mitigate radiological issues —only to remove immediate physical hazards associated with the abandoned mines.
Field teams also document what Glascock refers to as “attractive nuisances”—artifacts and nearby roads making abandoned mine sites easily accessible to an unknowing public who come to recreate or explore, unaware of the dangers.
Concrete or earthen backfill has closed off most of the mine openings at this safeguarded site. Other closures here include iron grates—designed to allow bats, critical to the ecosystem, to fly in and out. Interestingly, bats have found abandoned mines make good habitat. Bat Conservation International (BCI), with offices in Texas, Washington, D.C., and Flagstaff, Arizona, works closely with the DOE in protecting endangered and special status bat species. Bats’ life expectancy is not long enough for radiation to have adverse effects, said Lewis, DRUM’s project manager.
During the tour, Lewis notices cool air coming out of one of the grated mine openings. Grass and a small Russian olive tree grow around the entrance—a bit of greenery in this parched high desert environment. Entering mines can be tempting for outdoor recreationists looking to escape the hot sun in arid areas with no shade. People don’t realize the slight breeze could potentially be radon gas.
“There’s a lure to go into caves and explore,” Lewis said. “A lot of people just want to go in and find things. Then they post to social media. Years ago, in Silverton (Colorado), I saw a family with young children coming out of a mine,” where water overtopped the 4-year-old’s boots. The family told Lewis they explore the mine every year.
While DRUM is authorized to only address defense-related uranium mines, abandoned mines present hazards across the United States and the world. There are 500,000 abandoned mines nationwide, said Lewis. The Forest Service estimates there are 38,991 abandoned mines on its property, while the BLM estimates it has 52,200. On the Colorado Plateau alone, there are approximately 23,000 in Colorado, 17,000 in Utah, 8,000 in New Mexico, and 100,000 in Arizona.
Representatives from the former Soviet Union plan to visit the Colorado Plateau next summer to tour safeguarded sites and learn how the DRUM program was implemented. “(The Soviet Union) had these large towns right at the mine, the mill—they were living in it; it’s shocking to see,” Lewis said. Next year, when DRUM begins focusing on tribal lands (Campaign 2), it will address similar issues, where Native Americans are living in close proximity to abandoned uranium sites.