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 6 of 7)
"Where do we get that water?" asked Mark Williams, a hydrologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has received a National Science Foundation grant to look at energy and water issues. "Right now we want to get it from the near surface because it's cheaper. The question is, is that going to change in the future?"Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
If the EPA rejected Wyoming's request, it opened itself to other problems, however.
The EPA had granted exemptions allowing the two injection wells already operating at Christensen Ranch based on the notion that the aquifers below them did not qualify as sources of drinking water. If the agency reversed itself on this, it could make the existing mine operations illegal.
"I don't think that you could argue very strongly that it was the intent of the law to routinely use these exemptions to get around complying with the law," Wireman said.
"The law is very clear," he added, referring to the prohibition against allowing injection wells for toxic waste above aquifers. "That was done for a reason."
The process slowed to a crawl as federal officials from Denver to Washington considered the matter.
In December 2010, the EPA sent a letter to Wyoming's chief groundwater supervisor saying the agency saw no justification for granting new exemptions at Christensen Ranch and asked the state to make a stronger scientific argument.
The EPA also informed Wyoming regulators it planned to publish the exemption requests in the Federal Register, a move that would open them up for public comment and push back their potential approval date.
Infuriated, Wyoming officials approved the renewal permit on their own authority on Aug. 7, 2012, and decided the new injection wells did not need EPA permission because they were covered by past exemptions that could not be reversed.
"We were pretty disappointed with the amount of time it was taking to get a determination, and of course the operator was as well," Kevin Frederick, groundwater manager for the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, told ProPublica. "The delay ... really kind of caused us to rethink what we were asking EPA to consider. We recognized that we were essentially issuing a permit that had already been approved."
Wyoming's top elected official punctuated the state's position on the case by complaining to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson about the agency's interference.
"Wyoming is the number one producer of uranium in the United States. The industry provides the nation with a reliable, secure source of domestic uranium," Gov. Matthew Mead wrote in a stern Aug. 29 letter. The EPA's review was having a "direct impact on operations, planning, investment and jobs. This has resulted in a standstill which has been the situation for far too long."
* * *
The problems and pressures the EPA is facing at Christensen Ranch are not unique.
With uranium mining booming, the agency has received a mounting number of requests for aquifer exemptions in recent years. So far, EPA records show, the agency has issued at least 40 exemptions for uranium mines across the country and is considering several more. Two mines are expanding operations near Christensen Ranch.
In several cases, the EPA has struggled to balance imposing water protections with accommodating the industry's needs.
In South Dakota, where Powertech Uranium is seeking permits for a new mine in the Black Hills, state regulations bar the deep injection wells typically used to dispose of mining waste. The EPA is weighing whether to allow Powertech to use what's called a Class 5 well – a virtually unregulated and unmonitored shallow dumping system normally used for non-toxic waste – instead.
Making a Difference