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Water for uranium: A Faustian bargain at Wyoming ranch?

Conflict over whether to allow more uranium mining at a Wyoming ranch exemplifies tensions between the feverish drive for domestic energy and the need to protect future water resources.

By Abrahm LustgartenProPublica / January 2, 2013

Thousands of small black boxes used for uranium mining are scattered across Christensen Ranch in Wyoming. The EPA has issued exemptions that give mine operators at the ranch permission to ignore protections guaranteed by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica

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Gillette, Wyo.

On a lonely stretch at the edge of the Great Plains, rolling grassland presses up against a crowning escarpment called the Pumpkin Buttes. The land appears bountiful, but it is stingy, straining to produce enough sustenance for the herds of cattle and sheep on its arid prairies.

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"It's a tough way to make a living," said John Christensen, whose family has worked this private expanse, called Christensen Ranch, for more than a century.

Christensen has made ends meet by allowing prospectors to tap into minerals and oil and gas beneath his bucolic hills. But from the start, it has been a Faustian bargain.

As dry as this land may be, underground, vast reservoirs hold billions of gallons of water suitable for drinking, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Yet every day injection wells pump more than 200,000 gallons of toxic and radioactive waste from uranium mining into Christensen's aquifers.

What is happening in this remote corner of Wyoming affects few people other than Christensen – at least for now. 

But a roiling conflict between state and federal regulators over whether to allow more mining at Christensen Ranch – and the damage that comes with it – has pitted the feverish drive for domestic energy against the need to protect water resources for the future. The outcome could have far-reaching implications, setting a precedent for similar battles sparked by the resurgence of uranium mining in Texas, South Dakota, New Mexico and elsewhere.

Twenty-five years ago, the EPA and Wyoming officials agreed that polluting the water beneath Christensen Ranch was an acceptable price for producing energy there.

The Safe Drinking Water Act forbids injecting industrial waste into or above drinking water aquifers, but the EPA issued what are called aquifer exemptions that gave mine operators at the ranch permission to ignore the law. Over the last three decades, the agency has issued more than 1,500 such exemptions nationwide, allowing energy and mining companies to pollute portions of at least 100 drinking water aquifers.

When the EPA granted the exemptions for Christensen Ranch, its scientists believed that the reservoirs underlying the property were too deep to hold desirable water, and that even if they did, no one was likely to use it. They also believed the mine operators could contain and remediate pollution in the shallower rock layers where mining takes place.

Over time, shifting science and a changing climate have upended these assumptions, however. An epochal drought across the West has made water more precious and improved technology has made it economically viable to retrieve water from extraordinary depths, filter it and transport it.

"What does deep mean?" asked Mike Wireman, a hydrologist with the EPA who also works with the World Bank on global water supply issues. "There is a view out there that says if it's more than a few thousand feet deep we don't really care ... just go ahead and dump all that waste. There is an opposite view that says no, that is not sustainable water management policy."

Federal regulators also have become less certain that it is possible to clean up contamination from uranium mining. At Christensen Ranch and elsewhere, efforts to cleanse radioactive pollutants from drinking water aquifers near the surface have failed and uranium and its byproducts have sometimes migrated beyond containment zones, records show.

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