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.
Powertech officials say they will voluntarily meet the EPA’s toughest construction standards for injection wells and will treat waste before burying it to alleviate concerns about groundwater.
“It’s not going around the process,” said Clement, the company’s CEO. “It’s using the laws the way they were designed to be used.”
Environmental groups say the EPA should not be letting mining companies write their own rules.
“It’s disturbing that such a requirement would be so easy to get around,” said Jeff Parsons, a senior attorney for the Western Mining Action Project, which is representing the Oglala Sioux in a challenge to stop the Powertech mine. “There is a reason that South Dakota prohibited Class 1 wells; it’s to protect the aquifers.”
Similar disputes are erupting across the country.
In Goliad County, Texas, a proposal for a new uranium mine has triggered a bitter fight between state officials and the EPA.
In 2010, Texas regulators gave a mining company preliminary permission to pollute a shallow aquifer even though 50 homes draw water from wells near the contamination zone.
EPA scientists were concerned by the mining area’s proximity to homes and believed the natural flow of water would send contaminants toward the water wells. At first, the agency notified Texas officials it would deny an exemption for the mine unless the state did further monitoring and analysis.
Texas regulators refused. “It appears the EPA may be swayed by the unsubstantiated allegations and fears of uranium mining opponents,” Zak Covar, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, wrote in a May 2012 letter to William Honker, acting director of the EPA’s local Water Protection Division.
As the case dragged on without a final determination, some within the agency worried that the EPA would go back on its initial decision and capitulate to appease Texas authorities, with whom it has clashed repeatedly.
“This aquifer exemption issue in Goliad County might become a sacrificial lamb that the federal government puts on the altar to try to repair some relations with the state,” said a former government official with knowledge of the case.
On Dec. 5, the EPA approved the exemption in Goliad County.
Many disputes over aquifer exemptions focus on water people might need years in the future, but in Goliad County the risk is imminent. People already rely on drinking water drawn from areas close to those that would be polluted.
“This is a health issue as much as a water supply issue,” said Art Dohmann, president of the Goliad County Groundwater Conservation District, a local agency that manages water resources.
As of now, it’s unclear how the EPA will answer Wyoming’s challenge to its authority at Christensen Ranch.
Meanwhile, uranium mining has resumed on the property.
Uranium One, a Canadian-based company with majority Russian ownership that bought the facility from Cogema in 2010, is moving forward with the added injection wells to expand the operation.
For Christensen, it’s the same old story. “I’m going to be dead before it’s turned back into grazing land,” he said of the ranch. “I’m almost 63 years old… so you know, it’s gone on my whole life.”
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