Uranium Removal Facility Now Operational

Grand Island's uranium removal facility started running about 1 week ago
Thursday, July 19, 2012

Grand Island’s $3 million uranium removal facility started running about one week ago.

The facility is expected to remove about 300 pounds of naturally occurring uranium every year from the city’s municipal water supply. That water is pumped by 21 city wells located along the Platte River.

The level of uranium in most of the city’s pumped water has been rising slightly over time, prompting the city to begin a pilot project on how to reduce the uranium levels in the event that removal becomes mandatory in the future, said Utilities Director Tim Luchsinger.

He and utilities staff gave a tour Wednesday afternoon of the new 4,200-square-foot uranium removal facility located at the city’s Platte River wellfield south of the city.

The city hired Water Remediation Technologies of Arvada, Colo., to operate and maintain the facility for 10 years at a cost of $780,000 a year.

“This technology is called ion exchange,” Luchsinger said. “It’s similar to what a water softener does ... when you run the water through this media it’s formulated to collect uranium.”

The media, which Luchsinger held up in a small plastic, see-through vial, is a synthetic resin in tiny granules slightly larger than a grain of rice. It sits inside a 13,000-gallon water tank and simply strains the uranium out of the water as the water passes over the resin.

There are four of the large water tanks in the facility that boasts 20-foot-high ceilings. Two streams of water are piped into the facility. Each water stream passes through two tanks for filtering, Luchsinger said.

The facility is treating water from wells No. 6, 7 and 8 that had uranium levels “in the high 20s,” Luchsinger said. The Environmental Protection Agency has set a drinking water standard of 30 parts per billion for uranium.

The city took a water sample Wednesday and sent it off for testing. In 10 days, it will have the answer to how well the new facility is working, Luchsinger said.

“I expect the results to come back at 5 parts per billion,” he said.

That filtered water will be blended with the water from the city’s other wellfield wells — effectively giving the city “more margin” at staying below the EPA drinking water standards, Luchsinger said.

As the naturally occurring uranium levels, which are prevalent in the Platte River Valley, change in the future, Luchsinger said the city can add on to the filtering facility if need be.

About every year to 18 months, the resin will be pumped out of the water tanks and new resin put in. The old resin will be taken to a landfill in Utah or Idaho licensed to take low-level radioactive waste, said Ron Dollar, vice president of Water Remediation Technologies.

The filtering process is very quiet.

“This system is actually in full operation right now — you don’t hear any sounds. There’s no mechanical things moving,” Dollar said. “It’s kind of like watching grass grow. It’s very quiet and very simple.”

The only immediate visible indication that the water tanks were full of water being filtered was the condensation on the side of the tanks. Assistant Utilities Director Lynn Mayhew said the temperature of the water coming out of the ground is 50 degrees.

The tanks filter about 3,500 gallons of water a minute. About 1.5 billion gallons of water are expected to be filtered each year.

“There are no chemicals used — we are not adding anything to the water. All we’re doing is taking out the uranium that’s there,” Dollar said. “It doesn’t affect the water taste or the water quality.”

The Grand Island City Council authorized a water bond and a water meter fee implemented in April to pay for the project.

Luchsinger said the uranium being filtered out of the water poses no health risk. Even if the resin capturing the uranium were spilled on the floor of the filtering facility, it would be no more exposure to uranium than a dental X-ray.

The problems with uranium exposure occur over chronic, longtime exposures, he said.

Although WRT has 150 filtering facilities in a number of other cities and states, Grand Island’s facility is the largest uranium-filtering facility in the country and is seen as a pilot project and model for other cities. Grand Island officials have already been invited to present information about the facility at upcoming water conferences. 

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