The extended Garcia family has lived for five generations in a cluster of frame and trailer homes here that now has a sad distinction: Their water is contaminated with uranium at levels so high the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration has told them to stop drinking it and see their doctors.
RICARDO, Texas The extended Garcia family has lived for five generations in a cluster of frame and trailer homes here that now has a sad distinction: Their water is contaminated with uranium at levels so high the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration has told them to stop drinking it and see their doctors.
State environmental officials and the company that has been mining uranium in the area for much of the last 20 years say the contamination is natural seepage from a vein of the radioactive material that runs near their well.
But the Garcias and other Kleberg County residents don't accept that explanation and are fighting to prevent further mining.
"That's weird that it's the only place and nobody else has it," Humberto Garcia said. "It just kind of raises questions. A quarter-mile away we have relatives, and their well is OK."
Lewisville-based Uranium Resources Inc. came to the area in the 1980s, sucking uranium-filled water from deep underground for processing. But the activity was suspended on and off through the late 1990s, when prices plummeted from more than $30 a pound to about $7. Claiming financial problems, the company failed to clean up the area or restore the water below.
"The promise was they would take all the uranium and leave the water clean," said Teo Saenz, president of STOP (South Texas Opposes Pollution). "They didn't."
Demand for uranium has increased recently, and URI has proposed two new mines. Global stockpiles of uranium are dwindling and several countries, including China and India, have plans to build nuclear power plants.
STOP members, who number about a dozen, say an engineer mapped the underground for them in the mid-1990s and accurately predicted that contamination from the mine field would migrate first to the Garcia wells. They now fear poisoned water will seep toward the water supply of nearby Kingsville, population 26,000.
Mark Pelizza, a URI vice president, said those concerns are unfounded.
At a public hearing Monday, Garcia and other residents will make their case against the company mining a new area, arguing that since URI failed to clean up its former operations it shouldn't be allowed to do more. The administrative judge will make a recommendation to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
In October 2004, the Garcias received a letter from the EPA informing them that water samples submitted by URI showed uranium levels in their water were five to eight times above the agency's standard for public drinking water. The letter said they had an elevated risk for cancer, and that they should stop drinking their water and see their doctors.
Pelizza said URI has operated prudently and that the residents can't see what cleanup they have already done. He said their operations have nothing to do with the poisoning on the Garcias' property.
"I think the evidence is the uranium deposit underlies their houses, and it is established that it natural," Pelizza said.
STOP members hold little hope that they'll stop what will be URI's third and fourth mines. Kleberg County officials reached a settlement with URI in December that the company must show it is cleaning old mines before beginning new mining activity.
"The settlement basically says they will make a 'good faith effort' to clean up the water," said Mark Walsh, a member of STOP. "It was a very big blow to us."
County Judge Pete De La Garza said the agreement, which requires URI to pay the county $20,000 for an expert to monitor the cleanup, was the county's best route toward getting at least $5 million worth of cleanup done.
"We had two choices, the way I see it," he said. "The first choice was just to not allow them to mine, let them go away and leave our water dirty. The second I thought was more prudent -- to get our water cleaned up."
But Kleberg County residents who leased land to URI say they wished their families hadn't bought into promises 25 years ago of easy royalties, regional prosperity and better-than-before cleanup.
"It's been how many years now that we cannot farm the land?" said Elizabeth Cumberland, whose family leased land to URI in 1980. "I personally believe we have simply lost that land."
Source: Associated Press