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On a Wyoming Ranch, Feds Sacrifice Tomorrow’s Water to Mine Uranium Today

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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.”

This post was originally published by ProPublica under a creative commons license.

 

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101 comments

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4:22PM PST on Mar 9, 2013

Man can live without food, and without uranium, but not water. What's wrong with this picture???

First - the Wyoming Department of Environment is nothing more than a bought and paid for stakeholder for mining, ranching, and any big business big enough to buy off the WY Republican legislature.

Second - The entire area's aquifer for hundreds of square miles will be polluted for centuries with this area a complete wasteland with no agricultural value and little grazing value - so the short term profit by a few mining executives and their shareholders will be overshadowed by the long term loss of the land and aquifer whose value over both the short and long term to all is huge compared to the profits eked out from yellow cake.

Third - It's guaranteed that none of those executives would tolerate living anywhere near or in the filth and pollution it created for those profits.

I have nothing against making tons of money, but not at such a terrible cost to the earth, its animals, plants and the livability for humans.

This is absolute insanity. Would a government agency make it legal for terrorists to drop chemcal weapons on the earth if someone could profit from it? Where does it end? When there is no more earth to mine pollute rape and pillage for profit, or when all the humans are dead because there is no water left to drink or air that is breathable without a spacesuit?

Those who caused or allowed this disaster to knowingly take place will be punished severe

10:02AM PST on Jan 17, 2013

Money, money, money. U own it, u can do whatever u want. It's called private property...:(

11:25PM PST on Jan 8, 2013

Stupid man has sold out to the devil for a few $$$ and will loose his ranch for peanuts, because nobody would want to by that land and big mining made millions to pollute the rest of the world.

9:32PM PST on Jan 2, 2013

Thanks

12:32PM PST on Jan 2, 2013

Greed over humanity, disgusting.

5:20AM PST on Jan 2, 2013

MONEY, MONEY, MONEY!!! Much more important than water!!!

1:42PM PST on Jan 1, 2013

We don't need more uranium. BUT WE NEED OUR WATER!

12:47PM PST on Jan 1, 2013

GOT A PLACE TO STORE WATER, AND WATER FILTERS? GO SOLAR AND WOODEN WINDMILL ON EVERY HOUSE.

10:36AM PST on Jan 1, 2013

Thank you for Sharing.

9:25AM PST on Jan 1, 2013

Danger!

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