Evaluation of potential radon exposure from development of phosphate deposits

Eichholz, G. G. ; Ambrose, J. P. ; Skowroski, M. G.
Organization: Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration
Pages: 2
Publication Date: Jan 1, 1987
Introduction It has long been known that there are extensive deposits of phosphate-bearing deposits in the Coastal Plain of Georgia in many locations that are similar to those being mined commercially in central Florida. A major drilling program was conducted in 1966-67 by the Georgia Geological Survey (GGS). The economic potential of some of the material uncovered was evaluated at that time by a team at Georgia Institute of Technology led by Dr. J.E. Husted. There were some promising results. Since then, there has been little commercial interest in pursuing this matter, though the potential for development remains. In the long term, Georgia's phosphorite deposits could be a major source of income to the state if they were commercially processed. Phosphorite deposits contain significant levels of uranium and thorium. Uranium concentrations in Florida phosphate aggregates have been found to be 120 to 140 ppm. The presence of high concentrations of uranium means that there is a small but finite concentration of radium, which subsequently leads to radon gas emanation. It is the radon emanation and its progeny that may pose the largest health problem in many types of mining. Surface mining operations can possibly elevate the radon and radon daughter concentration in the vicinity. There is always some public concern whether any increase in the radon concentration in the atmosphere by mining (surface mining in the phosphorite case) could elevate the risk of cancer in the nearby population. At the present time, a great deal of attention has been devoted to the possible health effects of radon and its decay products in the inhaled air in mines and inside buildings built on mill tailings or uranium-bearing rock (Gesell and Lowder, 1980). Several evaluations have been published on the potential health effects of the Florida phosphate operations (Guimond and Windham, 1975; Roessler et al., 1980; Travis et al., 1979) and for buildings incorporating phosphate slag aggregates (Kahn, Eichholz, and Clarke, 1983; Roessler, Roessler, and Bolch, 1983). They all indicate that such potential effects are small, but tangible, compared with other radiation effects, for instance in the nuclear industry (Cohen, 1981). In view of the current concern, especially by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with the radiological consequences of large-scale mining of uranium-bearing phosphate rock (Guimond and Windham, 1975), it was decided to assess the potential radiological consequences if the Georgia deposits were developed. This paper presents an attempt to estimate the magnitude of any radon-based health effects that might arise from future mining operations in selected areas of the Georgia coastal region. To do this, a calculational model was developed that took into account the mining operations themselves, the atmospheric dispersion of the radon released, and the radon daughter concentrations in nearby towns. The model was applied to both extremes. The first application was a hypothetical mining operation in Echols County. Echols County is very sparsely populated and, unless living very close to the site, a person would probably experience little radiation exposure, if any. The model tries to prove this point. The second application was at a site near Savannah, Georgia. Both sites contain economically feasible phosphorite deposits and were not entirely hypothetical in that sense. Site selection In the course of the South Georgia Minerals Program (Furcron, 1967), an extensive series of drill core samples had been collected from various mineral occurrences in the coastal plain. It was found that the cores from the previous drilling program (Furcron, 1967), though carefully preserved, were not readily accessible. But the GGS reports did contain gamma logs of all the holes surveyed. With the cooperation of Dr. Neal Shapiro of the Survey, some core samples were selected and assayed, and used to calibrate the gamma log data. Samples from locations known to have detectable radioactivity were screened and counted. Their measured uranium content was used to calibrate the gamma log profiles for those same holes as obtained by the GGS. On this basis, two of the higher-level sites were selected and the calibration was used to obtain integrated uranium concentrations over the length of the borehole. It is customary to describe radon and radon-daughter concentrations in "working levels" (WL), where one WL represents a concentration of radon daughters capable of releasing 130 000 MeV of alpha particles, equivalent to 100 pCi of radon in equilibrium with its daughters per liter of air. A representative concentration is 0.15 WL, below which radon levels are widely considered to be negligible. For the mine sites selected, the surface area and rock volume were determined to estimate their radon content. Working-level values were then estimated for the assumed radon release from the crushed ore and the exposed surfaces of the mine pit. According to Kisielewski (1980), 93.4% of all radon released from open-pit operations is released from the ore zone; thus, the calculations assumed that those surface areas were the main sources.
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