The Oregon Department of Energy monitors the safe storage of uranium mines and disposal sites in south-central Oregon.
In 1955, uranium was discovered outside of Lakeview, Oregon. Two mines, the White King and the Lucky Lass, began to produce uranium. The mines are located about 17 miles northwest of Lakeview and are about a mile apart.
The open-pit mines produced a low grade of ore, which went into the nation’s nuclear weapons program – so Lakeview uranium likely ended up in the Hanford
reactors to produce plutonium. A uranium processing m
ill was constructed on the northern edge of town to process the mined ore. The mill operated from late 1958 until 1961, and mining at White King and Lucky Lass stopped around 1965.
A uranium tailings pile (residue from ore) sat next to the mill. In 1976, areas of elevated radioactivity were discovered, and the tailings pile was covered with about two feet of dirt.
Between 1968-1988, the mill tailings and contaminated soil were excavated and moved to a disposal cell about seven miles outside of Lakeview. A compacted soil layer was added to limit radon escape and water percolation into the tailings, and a rock cover was added to protect the soil from erosion.
The mines, meanwhile, sat for several decades – the pits filling with acidic water and containing elevated levels of radioactive materials. Contamination threatened nearby Auger Creek. In 1995, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added the two mines to its cleanup priorities list, and cleanup occurred over the next decade or so, ending in 2005.
ODOE had a resident inspector in Lakeview for nearly a decade to oversee the cleanup.
Now, our responsibilities are annual inspection visits to ensure that the cleanup activities remain robust and that the cover over the mill tailings does not erode. We also monitor the water sampling that occurs at both the mill and the mine sites.