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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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Some regulators and mining industry executives call attempts to fully restore aquifers at uranium sites idealistic. Such water was often contaminated with uranium before mining began, they contend.

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"When you restore it ... you bring each individual ion down to a level that is within the levels that occurred naturally," said Richard Clement, the chief executive of Powertech Uranium, which is currently applying for permits for a new mine in South Dakota. "It depends what you mean by 100 percent successful. Are people saying it is different than what it was? Yes it is. But is it worse? No."

Efforts to restore the groundwater at Christensen Ranch had other consequences. While the water was supposed to be filtered and re-injected, millions of gallons were removed and disposed of permanently as a result of the process, lowering the ranch's water table.

Water wells outside of the mine area that had routinely produced 10 gallons a minute struggled to produce a single quart, Christensen said. The water levels in the aquifer also dropped – in some places by 100 feet.

"They have always claimed that they could restore the groundwater," Christensen said. "The main concern is there isn't much water left when they get it to that quality. It never came back."

* * *

In 2007, as uranium commodities skyrocketed and a new mining boom began, Cogema applied to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for permits to restart and expand its operations at Christensen Ranch.

To do it, the company would need to use two additional deep injection wells, making four total, to dispose of waste produced from ongoing restoration efforts and absorb the byproducts of drying and refining yellowcake. The plan called for more than tripling the amount of waste the company could pump into the Lance aquifer, more than 3,000 feet under Christensen Ranch.

Wyoming had permitted the additional wells years earlier, which it can do under authority delegated to states by the EPA to enact the Safe Drinking Water Act. But Cogema's request required something more – a change to past exemptions – that only the EPA had the power to grant.

Earlier exemptions issued for Christensen Ranch had only indirectly addressed the deep aquifers underlying the Lance.

In November 2010, Wyoming officials asked the EPA to exempt every layer of water below the Lance, regardless of its quality or whether it was being used by the mine, and without additional study. The water quality at those depths was "not reliably known," they wrote. The EPA should apply the exemptions to all of the deep aquifers, they said, "whether or not they meet the definitions of 'underground sources of drinking water.'"

For the EPA, Wyoming's request opened up a morass of legal and environmental concerns.

In the eight years since the agency had approved the last exemption at the ranch, its scientists had grown increasingly convinced that the deep layers of aquifers beneath the property might contain one of the state's largest reserves of good water. One layer, the Madison, is described in a state assessment as "probably the most important high-yield aquifer in Wyoming" and supplies drinking water to the city of Gillette.

Some within the EPA worried that approving Wyoming's request would create a damaging precedent, several EPA employees told ProPublica. It would write off billions of gallons of water in perpetuity, stripping them of legal protections against pollution, even though they were not necessary to the mining process.

Also, arguments that nobody would ever pay to pull water from aquifers below Christensen Ranch seemed more tenuous as scarcity made every drop of clean water more valuable and changing technology made deeper resources economically viable.

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