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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.

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In 2007, when the Christensen Ranch mine operator proposed expanding its operations, bringing more injection wells online and more than tripling the amount of waste it was injecting into underground reservoirs, Wyoming officials eagerly gave their permission, but the EPA found itself at a crossroads.

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If the agency did what Wyoming wanted, it could destroy water that someday could be necessary and undermine its ability to protect aquifers in other places. If it rejected the plan, the agency risked political and legal backlash from state officials and the energy industry.

The EPA declined interview requests from ProPublica for this story and did not respond to a lengthy set of questions submitted in writing. After learning that ProPublica contacted several EPA employees directly involved in the debate over Christensen Ranch, the agency instructed staffers not to discuss the matter without agency approval.

For the last five years, as regulators have vacillated over what to do, John Christensen has experienced a similar ambivalence.

His property is speckled with thousands of small, mysterious black boxes. From each dark cube, a mixture of chemicals is pumped into the ground to dissolve the ore and separate out the uranium so that it can be sucked back out and refined for nuclear fuel.

Horses graze behind a gate on a dirt road that winds across this 35,000-acre tract, 50 miles south of Gillette. Nearby, a small metal sign is strung to a cattle guard with chicken wire: "Caution. Radioactive Material."

Christensen still places a tenuous trust in the system that promises to keep his water safe and leave his ranch clean. He relies on the royalty income and believes the national pursuit of energy is important enough to warrant a few compromises.

Yet if he had it to do over again, he's not sure he would lease out the rights to put a uranium mine on Christensen Ranch.

"It's probably worthwhile for this generation," he said. "You just don't know about future generations."

* * *

John Christensen's grandfather, Fred, first allowed uranium exploration on the family's ranch in the 1950s.

Fred Christensen had come to Wyoming from Michigan as a homesteader in 1906, finding work as a ranch hand and settling on a small tract at the base of the northernmost Pumpkin Butte. The Christensens farmed sheep, selling their meat and their wool, and used the proceeds to buy up more land. Through marriage and business, the family amassed some 70,000 acres, coming to rank among the largest private landowners in the United States.

Yet droughts plagued the region, making agriculture difficult. Tapping into Wyoming's resource wealth, the Christensens staked claims on the property, selling mining and drilling rights to companies that helped transform the Powder River Basin into the energy basket of America.

Uranium was discovered underneath Christensen Ranch in 1973. In 1978, after the property had been divided between cousins, Westinghouse Electric launched the first large-scale uranium mine on John Christensen's portion.

Modern mining for the radioactive ore inevitably pollutes water.

To avoid digging big holes in the ground, operators inject a mixture of sodium bicarbonate, hydrogen peroxide and oxygen into the rock to separate out the minerals and bond to the uranium. Then, they vacuum out the uranium-laden fluids to make a fine powder called yellowcake. The process leaves a toxic mix of heavy metals and radioactive ions floating in the groundwater and generates millions of gallons of waste that need to be dumped deeper underground.

The federal Safe Drinking Water Act, implemented in the early 1980s as mining began in earnest on Christensen Ranch, posed a potential hurdle to such ventures because it prohibited disposal of waste in aquifers. But the law allowed regulators to exempt aquifers if they determined that water was too dirty to use, or buried too deep to be worth pumping to the surface, or unlikely to be needed.

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