On a Wyoming Ranch, Feds Sacrifice Tomorrow's Water
to Mine Uranium Today
Friday, 28 December 2012 09:44 By
| News Analysis
Aerial view of open-pit uranium mines in the Gas Hills of central
John Amos /
Gillette, Wyoming - On a lonely stretch at the edge of the Great Plains,
rolling grassland presses up against a crowning escarpment called the
Pumpkin Buttes. The land appears bountiful, but it is stingy, straining
to produce enough sustenance for the herds of cattle and sheep on its
"It's a tough way to make a living," said John Christensen,
whose family has worked this private expanse, called Christensen Ranch,
for more than a century.
Christensen has made ends meet by allowing prospectors to tap into
minerals and oil and gas beneath his bucolic hills. But from the start,
it has been a Faustian bargain.
As dry as this land may be, underground, vast reservoirs hold billions of
gallons of water suitable for drinking, according to the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency. Yet every day injection wells pump more
than 200,000 gallons of toxic and radioactive waste from uranium mining
into Christensen's aquifers.
What is happening in this remote corner of Wyoming affects few people
other than Christensen at least for now.
But a roiling conflict between state and federal regulators over whether
to allow more mining at Christensen Ranch and the damage that comes
with it has pitted the feverish drive for domestic energy against the
need to protect water resources for the future. The outcome could have
far-reaching implications, setting a precedent for similar battles
sparked by the resurgence of uranium mining in Texas, South Dakota, New
Mexico and elsewhere.
Twenty-five years ago, the EPA and Wyoming officials agreed that
polluting the water beneath Christensen Ranch was an acceptable price for
producing energy there.
The Safe Drinking Water Act forbids injecting industrial waste into or
above drinking water aquifers, but the EPA issued what are called aquifer
exemptions that gave mine operators at the ranch permission to ignore the
Over the last three decades
, the agency has issued more than 1,500
such exemptions nationwide, allowing energy and mining companies to
pollute portions of at least 100 drinking water aquifers.
When the EPA granted the exemptions for Christensen Ranch, its scientists
believed that the reservoirs underlying the property were too deep to
hold desirable water, and that even if they did, no one was likely to use
it. They also believed the mine operators could contain and remediate
pollution in the shallower rock layers where mining takes place.
Over time, shifting science and a changing climate have upended these
assumptions, however. An epochal drought across the West has made water
more precious and improved technology has made it economically viable to
retrieve water from extraordinary depths, filter it and transport
"What does deep mean?" asked Mike Wireman, a hydrologist with
the EPA who also works with the World Bank on global water supply issues.
"There is a view out there that says if it's more than a few
thousand feet deep we don't really care
just go ahead and dump all that
waste. There is an opposite view that says no, that is not sustainable
water management policy."
Federal regulators also have become less certain that it is possible to
clean up contamination from uranium mining. At Christensen Ranch and
elsewhere, efforts to cleanse radioactive pollutants from drinking water
aquifers near the surface have failed and uranium and its byproducts have
sometimes migrated beyond containment zones, records show.
In 2007, when the Christensen Ranch mine operator proposed expanding its
operations, bringing more injection wells online and more than tripling
the amount of waste it was injecting into underground reservoirs, Wyoming
officials eagerly gave their permission, but the EPA found itself at a
If the agency did what Wyoming wanted, it could destroy water that
someday could be necessary and undermine its ability to protect aquifers
in other places. If it rejected the plan, the agency risked political and
legal backlash from state officials and the energy industry.
The EPA declined interview requests from ProPublica for this story and
did not respond to a lengthy set of questions submitted in writing. After
learning that ProPublica contacted several EPA employees directly
involved in the debate over Christensen Ranch, the agency instructed
staffers not to discuss the matter without agency approval.
For the last five years, as regulators have vacillated over what to do,
John Christensen has experienced a similar ambivalence.
His property is speckled with thousands of small, mysterious black boxes.
From each dark cube, a mixture of chemicals is pumped into the ground to
dissolve the ore and separate out the uranium so that it can be sucked
back out and refined for nuclear fuel.
Horses graze behind a gate on a dirt road that winds across this
35,000-acre tract, 50 miles south of Gillette. Nearby, a small metal sign
is strung to a cattle guard with chicken wire: "Caution. Radioactive
Christensen still places a tenuous trust in the system that promises to
keep his water safe and leave his ranch clean. He relies on the royalty
income and believes the national pursuit of energy is important enough to
warrant a few compromises.
Yet if he had it to do over again, he's not sure he would lease out the
rights to put a uranium mine on Christensen Ranch.
"It's probably worthwhile for this generation," he said.
"You just don't know about future generations."
* * *
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
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
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
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
The restoration wouldn't go entirely as planned.
* * *
In July 2004, contaminants were detected in one of the monitoring wells
surrounding the mining facility at Christensen Ranch.
This wasn't that unusual, mining and regulatory officials say. Other
excursions, as they are called, had occurred over the years. The
monitoring wells are an early warning system, detecting benign chemicals
long before more dangerous toxins can spread.
"It's sort of like a smoke detector," said Ron Linton, who
oversees the licensing for Christensen Ranch for the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission. "They will go back in and adjust their flow with their
production practices within their ore zone to get those levels
according to documents
from the Wyoming Department of Environmental
Quality, Cogema the company then handling the restoration effort
could not fix the problem or identify its cause. The company tested water
from the area and examined their injection wells for defects, but told
state officials they believed the contaminants had occurred naturally and
were not from the mine.
For six years, the contaminants continued to spread, disappearing for
short periods as the restoration progressed only to reappear again,
"This really shouldn't happen," said Glenn Mooney, a senior
state geologist who oversaw the Christensen Ranch site for Wyoming from
the late 1970s until last July.
Mooney observed that the concentration of contaminants at the boundary
had leveled, but "showed no hint that they may drop," and
warned that some of the chemicals found posed a considerable
"The increase in uranium levels, a level over 70 times above the
maximum contaminate limit for uranium, in a well that is located at the
edge of the aquifer exemption boundary, is a major concern to WDEQ,"
he wrote in
a 2010 letter
Christensen said he was never told about the excursions beneath his
property and that, as far as he knew, several of the minefields had been
fully restored. He said he expected to use the shallow aquifer polluted
by the mining as a source of drinking water in the future.
Restoration is the most important backstop against the risk that
contaminants will spread from the mining site after the mining is
finished. Polluted water is pumped from the ground, filtered using
reverse osmosis, and then re-injected underground. The worst, most
concentrated waste is disposed of in deeper waste wells.
Yet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved Cogema's restoration of
minefields associated with Christensen Ranch even as the excursion
The commission deemed
nine mining fields
there successfully "restored" even
though records show that half of the contaminants in the aquifer,
including the radioactive byproduct Radium 226, remained above their
Studies by the
U.S. Geological Survey
have found that similar cleanups elsewhere have
rarely been fully successful.
The Geological Survey's study of uranium restoration in Texas found that
no sites had been completely restored to pre-mining levels, and the
majority had elevated uranium when the restoration was finished. The 2008
NRC review concluded that each of 11 sites at three mines certified by
the agency as "restored" had at least one important pollutant
above baseline levels recorded before mining began. The report concluded
that restoring water to baseline levels was "not attainable"
for many of the most important contaminants, including uranium.
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.
"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?
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
"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
* * *
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
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
For the EPA, Wyoming's request opened up a morass of legal and
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
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.
"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
If the EPA rejected Wyoming's request, it opened itself to other
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
"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
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
Wyoming's top elected official punctuated the state's position on the
case by complaining to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson about the agency's
"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
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
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
. "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
"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
"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
This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may
not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the
Abrahm Lustgarten is a former staff writer and contributor for
, and has written for Salon
and the New York Times
since receiving his
master's in journalism from Columbia University in 2003. He is the author
of the book Chinas Great Train: Beijings Drive West and the Campaign
to Remake Tibet
, a project that was funded in part by a grant from
the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th
St., Baltimore, MD 21218. Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at]
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