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.
(Page 4 of 7)
But according to documents from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, Cogema – the company then handling the restoration effort – could not fix the problem or identify its cause. The company tested water from the area and examined their injection wells for defects, but told state officials they believed the contaminants had occurred naturally and were not from the mine.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
For six years, the contaminants continued to spread, disappearing for short periods as the restoration progressed only to reappear again, records show.
"This really shouldn't happen," said Glenn Mooney, a senior state geologist who oversaw the Christensen Ranch site for Wyoming from the late 1970s until last July.
Mooney observed that the concentration of contaminants at the boundary had leveled, but "showed no hint that they may drop," and warned that some of the chemicals found posed a considerable risk.
"The increase in uranium levels, a level over 70 times above the maximum contaminate limit for uranium, in a well that is located at the edge of the aquifer exemption boundary, is a major concern to WDEQ," he wrote in a 2010 letter.
Christensen said he was never told about the excursions beneath his property and that, as far as he knew, several of the minefields had been fully restored. He said he expected to use the shallow aquifer polluted by the mining as a source of drinking water in the future.
Restoration is the most important backstop against the risk that contaminants will spread from the mining site after the mining is finished. Polluted water is pumped from the ground, filtered using reverse osmosis, and then re-injected underground. The worst, most concentrated waste is disposed of in deeper waste wells.
Yet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved Cogema's restoration of minefields associated with Christensen Ranch even as the excursion remained unresolved.
The commission deemed nine mining fields there successfully "restored" even though records show that half of the contaminants in the aquifer, including the radioactive byproduct Radium 226, remained above their natural levels.
The Geological Survey's study of uranium restoration in Texas found that no sites had been completely restored to pre-mining levels, and the majority had elevated uranium when the restoration was finished. The 2008 NRC review concluded that each of 11 sites at three mines certified by the agency as "restored" had at least one important pollutant above baseline levels recorded before mining began. The report concluded that restoring water to baseline levels was "not attainable" for many of the most important contaminants, including uranium.