EPA Tries to Sign Away Authority to Regulate Water-Polluting Uranium Mining

Every single instance of uranium mining leads to the contamination of the surrounding aquifer. Yet the agency is leaving the industry virtually unchecked. 

Gail Fisher/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced that it would cede much of its authority to regulate substantial groundwater contamination from in-situ leach uranium mining, a move that will allow the destructive industry to go unchecked at the expense of water quality across a number of western states, including Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Utah, and Texas.

“For decades, the uranium mining industry has gotten a free pass to pollute,” says NRDC senior attorney Geoffrey Fettus, “and now the Trump administration wants to just give up any pretense of protecting scarce water resources across the Mountain West.”

Leaving meaningful oversight almost entirely to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the states, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler issued a memorandum of understanding with the NRC that functionally relinquishes the EPA’s authority to ensure that aquifers are restored after in-situ leaching—a process in which chemicals are pumped into an aquifer to dissolve uranium off the rock, allowing the toxic and radioactive water to be pumped to the surface.

NRDC has demonstrated that every single instance of in-situ leaching contaminated the mined aquifer.

Due to lax oversight by the NRC, the scale of long-term damage from in-situ leaching remains largely unknown. The EPA had previously moved to issue a regulation forcing the industry to clean up after itself, but the Trump administration withdrew those rules. The agency, reversing more than a decade of careful technical and legal work that would have led to meaningful protections of waters in western states, has now adopted the industry’s position on the matter: that it should be allowed to pollute with impunity.

“The EPA has the legal authority—and the duty—to ensure that the uranium industry restores aquifers after it’s done mining,” Fettus says. “This action demonstrates that the EPA is more focused on protecting a polluting industry than it is on protecting people and our precious water supplies."

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