EPA Moves to Protect Groundwater from in situ Uranium Mining

Almost on a daily basis, we hear news stories depicting how water stricken communities are dealing with diminishing availability of fresh water sources. The town of Wichita Falls, Texas has proposed using treated wastewater for municipal drinking water supplies. California is experiencing one of its worst droughts, leading many communities to enact mandatory restrictions on water usage. Water scarcity problems have become so severe in Texas, that it's beginning to alter traditional partisan alignments, as Republican Governor Perry wrote a letter to President Obama to put pressure on the Mexican government to secure water supplies from the Rio Grande for Texas residents. Water knows no partisan allegiances.

So what do stressed water supplies have to do with modern uranium mining? Short answer - a lot, especially for the American West.

The dominant form of uranium mining used in the US is called in-situ ("in place") recovery (ISR) or in-situ leach (ISL). This process involves injecting a solution into a groundwater aquifer containing naturally occurring uranium ore, and bringing the "pregnant" solution to the surface, where the uranium is subsequently processed and shipped offsite. In other words, the uranium and other heavy metals are dissolved directly in the aquifer, which, unfortunately and inevitably, contaminates that aquifer.

In theory, once operations are complete, industry is required to restore the groundwater to pre-mining baseline concentrations (that is, the natural state the scarce groundwater was in prior to uranium operations). In reality however, restoration efforts to pre-mining water quality have failed in every instance leading to permanent contamination of millions of gallons of groundwater. So why has the process been so harmful to the environment and why aren't laws and regulations forcing a solution to the problems? Well, you can read the long answer here.

But the short answer is that regulations applicable to ISL uranium mining are both outdated and inadequate. In simple terms, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) licenses and regulates ISL operations under standards written for conventional uranium mills (a state can also assume the NRC's licensing authority). By statute, the NRC or the state regulator must also adopt EPA standards, but those were also written decades ago for uranium mills, so the NRC must then use these inexact standards for ISL operations. NRDC and its partners have taken a direct role to promote groundwater protection from ISL contamination through advocacy and direct ligation brought against a specific NRC environmental impact statement (EIS) for a proposed ISL mine in northeastern Wyoming.

So what is that EPA has done that is so significant? Finally, after years of jawboning by NRDC and others, EPA has issued its first ever set of draft standards for public comment for ISL uranium mining. These draft standards, if adopted, would impose requirements to protect scarce western groundwater resources. The proposed standards acknowledge many of the issues and shortsightedness found in the current regulations applicable to ISL uranium mining and how scarce groundwater resources are harmed and, essentially, sacrificed. This is especially important as EPA flatly states that groundwater supplies in the future will be heavily relied upon and of increasing consequence across the American West. NRDC agrees. We must understand and fully account for the environmental impacts of our extractive industries in an age when groundwater is of extraordinary importance.

The publication of these groundwater protection standards is a step in the right direction and we look forward to submitting detailed and technical, constructive comments. Indeed, while we are pleased EPA issued these long overdue draft standards, we think there are serious issues where EPA needs to clarify and improve the standards. We'll blog on those another day. But for now, states with significant ISL mining operations across the West, and especially states heavily reliant on groundwater such as Wyoming and Texas, should be interested in strengthening these standards to secure invaluable groundwater resources for future generations.