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.
In 1982, when Wyoming officials anticipated the need for an aquifer exemption at Christensen Ranch, the state’s then-governor, Ed Herschler, wrote to urge EPA officials to streamline their review of such requests and not to delay energy projects or interfere with Wyoming regulators. Steven Durham, the EPA’s regional administrator at the time, wrote back to assure the governor the EPA would not second guess state officials, and that he had adjusted the rules so that they “should assure a speedy finalization of any exemptions.”
Wyoming environment officials issued the first permit exempting several deep groundwater aquifers on the ranch from environmental protection in 1988. It said the water was of relatively poor quality, and was too deep and too remote to be used for drinking. The permit did not address the possibility that usable aquifers could lie in even deeper rock layers beneath the site.
The EPA confirmed the state’s exemptions and issued separate ones allowing the mine operator to contaminate the shallow layer of groundwater closest to the surface, where anyone who needed water — including John Christensen — was likely to go for it first.
Even as they gave their stamp of approval, EPA officials noted that the mine operator’s application had not set precise boundaries for the depth or breadth of the exempted area. “The information contained in the submittal does not specifically delineate the area to be designated,” the EPA’s Denver chief administrator acknowledged in a letter to Wyoming regulators in August 1988.
Still, Christensen, who continued to run stock on his land, saw the pollution as an inconvenience, not a threat. He was assured that the mine operator could steer contaminants toward the center of the exemption zone by manipulating pressure underground. Monitoring wells surrounded the perimeter of the mining site like sentries, checking if pollutants were seeping past the border.
Drilling new water wells beyond the mine’s boundary was expensive, but Christensen took comfort from rules obliging the mine operator to restore contaminated water within the exempted area to its original condition once mining was complete.
“That was our best quality water,” Christensen said. “I’ve been given to believe that it is not sacrificed, that they will restore the groundwater quality.”
The mining proceeded in fits and starts, stalling in 1982 with a collapse of the uranium market, picking up five years later, stopping again in 1990, and then restarting in 1993. Ownership of the facilities changed hands at least five times.
By 2000, mining activity seemed to be over for good, and restoration efforts geared up under the supervision of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The restoration wouldn’t go entirely as planned.
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