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

A battle over uranium mining at Christensen Ranch, a remote 35,000-acre tract in Wyoming, could shape decisions nationwide as mining surges in drought-stricken areas.

Thousands of small black boxes used for uranium mining are scattered across Christensen Ranch in Wyoming. (Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)

GILLETTE, Wyo. — 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 arid prairies.

"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 law. 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 it.

"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 crossroads.

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 Material."

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 States.

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 America.

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 Christensen's portion.

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 Commission.

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 down."

But 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, records show.

"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 risk.

"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 remained unresolved.

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 natural levels.

Studies by the NRC, the U.S. Geological Survey and private consultants 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? No."

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 feet.

"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 back."

* * *

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 Christensen Ranch.

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 drinking water.'"

For the EPA, Wyoming's request opened up a morass of legal and environmental concerns.

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 Gillette.

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 future?"

If the EPA rejected Wyoming's request, it opened itself to other problems, however.

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 illegal.

"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 argument.

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 approved."

Wyoming's top elected official punctuated the state's position on the case by complaining to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson about the agency's interference.

"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 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."

On Christensen’s burial plot it should say “Here lay a man who sold out the future generation’s water supply, may the depths of dispair strangle on the endless abyss of his thirst.”

Mr. Christensen didn’t sell out anything.  The aquifer that was “exempted” by the EPA for uranium production contained the very uranium that is being “mined” or produced.  In other words, the “aquifer” has naturally occurring uranium and other radionuclides in high concentrations. 

The article states ” Modern mining for the radioactive ore inevitably pollutes water.”  No, it doesn’t.  The company demonstrates that the groundwater is mineral commercial, and therefore gets an exemption from the gov’t.  The aquifer exemption is not to pollute an aquifer, but so that the company can extract the uranium in that aquifer.

This article is so full of half truths and blatant mis-leading comments, it’s ridiculous.

So we dig for uranium. The Feds have mandated fluorescent light bulbs that have mercury in them and when they burn out they must be discarded in landfills. What’s the diff? The Feds have their agenda and we are not part of it.

Christensen (he knows now), the mining companies (they knew all along), Wyoming DEQ, and the EPA officials that allowed this injustice should be tried criminally—let these big wigs sit in prison until the water is clean. How long? I dunno, what is the half-life of Uranium 238? Let’s see, oh about 4.5 billion years, yeah that should be long enough.

John V. Lesko

Dec. 26, 2012, 4:25 p.m.

So unfortunate!  Especially considering that Thorium powered nuclear power plants are safe, do not produce weapons grade waste, the waste they do produce is not really dangerous, and our country continues down the dead path of uranium instead of investing in Thorium research to make this fuel work as India, Germany, and other countries are doing.

Nature balances everything. No worries, really!

Hey Geohydro2011,

Exactly what “injustice” do you refer to?  Could you point out which laws in the Code of Federal Regulations were broken when the state & federal regulatory agencies issued their respective permits and authorizations? 
Thanks!!!!

not afraid to use my own name as the person replying to kim and geohydro2011 seems to be.  These companies ar polluting these and other aquifers that future generations will need to survive in the future.  They will curse those who caused the pollution but it will not matter for polluted water with uranium and other toxins will mean death to them and if we continue down this road and totally destroy this fragile enviroment that is our planet will it be said of us that we died as a species that we did so because we lovedd money to the point of killing ourselves?

Problems with uranium mining have been going on for decades. When people start falling over from cancer in the droves, and little kids are lit up like lightening bugs at night from radiation exposure coming from local wells, there’s a possibility someone might care. Maybe. Right now, it’s about money, money, money. Here’s what we need to implement: those who mine uranium must drink the water five generations out, otherwise they don’t get to mine, eh? Short-sightedness on these kinds of issues, will bring the human species to its knees, and maybe to its grave. Of course we can come up with any reasons and/or rationalizations to make more money, can’t we?

wonder who took the bribe and how much they got to kill future generations, as a cancer survivor, hope it is their family that is first to enjoy the effects of cancer. But that isnt how it usually goes. we have to get rid of the politicians that do not respect their oath to protect the people.
All in the name of Corporate PROFIT!!

Mario Salazar

Dec. 26, 2012, 6:52 p.m.

Abrahm didn’t explain that an exemption can be granted for mining in a USDW if the criteria is met; however, exemptions cannot be granted for the injection of waste. This type of injection is considered Class I well injection and it has to follow all requirements for this type of well. A Class I well can only inject below any USDW. Permits for Class I wells are very onerous.
There are no bribes involved in this process. There is a very strong incentive to do what the political managers were chosen to push. State employees are in a much more tenuous position. In many states controlled by the Republicans, like WY, there is very strong pressure to approve almost anything and even to go against what EPA mandates. When we found out that IN was rubber-stamping permits for oil and gas injection wells without any technical review, our political keepers at EPA would not let us take the program back from the state.
States like TX have always done what they wanted. Remember that production is what pays the taxes that keep candidates in or out of office.

Debbie Varecha

Dec. 26, 2012, 6:56 p.m.

I am so upset by this article.  I am only for water and no uranium.  No bombs, no war, no killing, no guns just peace and quiet.  We do not need all the material things we are wasting our time on.  We need to save the earth from the stupid, evil business people and corporations and mostly horrible greedy congressman and tea party people.
When it says secure uranium in your article and then owned by the Russians what are we talking about.  Send someone to our radio talk show in Grand Junction, Colorado to help us stop the new uranium mine permitted for Nucla area of San Miguel County, Colorado we are fighting to stop except Nucla that wants the “jobs” to kill themselves and ruin the water to precious to us.  It is a no brained.  Water lives and uranium kills.  Talk Show KNOZ FM 9-10AM M-F - old hippies trying to keep it up.  More marijuana please. Can you count how much we have paid for a superfund for the last 30 or more years to clean up the last uranium with some still sitting near Moab Utah waiting to go somewhere.  I am 73 so I have seen and heard it all and we do the same stupid things over and over while people are starving and dying with no health care because of greedy doctors from our past.  Thanks for you efforts from money from two Jewish people that made it from bad mortgages.  I am Jewish and at least they spent it trying to make things right it seems.  Oh well - luckily I have no grandchildren to die from pollution.  Debbie Varecha

BabyBoomerWriter

Dec. 26, 2012, 7:02 p.m.

All the prior comments illustrate the helplessness we all feel whenever a a federal or state takes risks with our life and health. Their role is to protect the public, and that should never include taking unknown risks to bend to requests from private companies. Clean air, water and soil support life and should not be violated. When agencies make the right choice—to ban short cuts, forbid rule exemptions that yield short term gains but have the potential for long term consequences, scientists and engineers will be motivated to seek alternatives. Seen from a business point of view, know that doing things the old way stifles innovation. When companies can use political clout to muscle government agencies, why bother developing alternatives?

We Americans want anything that is cheap/low cost. the problem is we want it right now and not in the future….SURE, we talk about protection and protecting our off spring. Yet when it comes right down to the brass/gold Bowl of giving up, What do most do?...And I do mean most and that includes You. Nothing, a big fat vote…A no vote!
Gun control, vote no, schools and upgrades, vote no, taxes vote no,climate comtol. a Big vote NO!..Children working and low wages in other countries. vote NO if it effects you! and the old pocket book…
SURE, blame your goverment. Go gosh, You are the Goverment.!!!!!
It Seems to me that anything that might Cost you and giving is, plain and simple,NOT EXCEPTABLE!!..Let others solve and do something.
ALL THE ARTICLES,ALL THE COMMENTS,,MEAN NOTHING UNLESS YOU START A NEW BEGINNING and actually do something rather than just Talk,Talk ,Talk, and placing blame..—————————————————————————————————-MORE—————————————————————————————————-

I’M OLD, MY generation already raped this world out of greed…
I’ll bet you can’t!...I have an excuse called ignorance/ stupidity. WHAT IS YOUR EXCUSE????
ASK YOURSELF, What are you willing to give up to correct ALL the problems in this country of ours ?

Mining is bad…even in urban areas that have municipal water systems. I live at ground zero for Urban Drilling as there are about 60 padsites in Arlington TX in a 99 sq mile area. We had a drill spill in Lake Arlington, our drinking source, a couple of years ago. We also have about 100 drilling laterals under our lake that are at migration risk from seismic events and or cement failures. We have had maybe a dozen gas release emission events over the last couple of years that I am aware of. I note the top ten things to make drilling safer near people in my blog BarnettShaleHell, but to be brief.. at minimum a good local ordinance could mandate…
1) need to use electric rigs and compressors,
2) better techniques to keep silicia dust from flying past the padsites,
3) they need to flowback right away and not let the well sour for a few months before flowing back,
4) they need to use closed, ventless, pressurized flowback tanks for topflow and then use separator/pipeline for end flow (GreenCompletion) equipment to control GHG’s.
It is a grand thing to ask for baseline tests and health & environmental impact studies for each location…if they did-it probably would be outlawed..residential zoning is a facade when industrial mining is allowed near people….....

Kelly VanDerStad

Dec. 26, 2012, 8:02 p.m.

Mario Salazar’s comment sounds like it should be accompanied by a disclaimer to “ignore the man behind the curtain”, you know the one pulling the strings.
I hope he posts more details on his knowledge of the process as well as who exactly the “we” in his statement “When we found out that IN was rubber-stamping permits for oil and gas injection wells without any technical review, our political keepers at EPA would not let us take the program back from the state.” as well as clarification on “our political keepers”.
If you have pertinent knowledge please share and by all means contact PEER for help if needed as this sounds like a potential whistle blower scenario.

@will—what are you? a shill for the nuke folks—the SDWA was violated as exemptions to the SDWA for these wells and schema were improper! But even more to the point, uranium is deadly and what type of stupid is it to pollute a well and aquifer with uranium?

@kevan…I do value my privacy and safety, no need to publicly identify myself so that crazies can do harm…if your point is that my comments are invalid because I am anonymous, too bad. You commit the fallacy of ad hominem—my point is valid whether I am public or a ghost….

If greedy ranchers would just say no when the landmen come knocking…This unending greed both at the corporate level and the non-corporate is going to be the end of us.  I hope Elizabeth Warren runs for President at some point.  She is the only person we can trust to truly serve the best interests of the people.  EPA is a political football now.  That needs to change.

@James: No, the Feds didn’t mandate “fluorescent light bulbs that have mercury in them.”

CFLs are only one answer to high efficiency lighting and by no means the best.

LED lamps are often a better choice and are in generally completely recyclable with little or no toxic waste.

Disclosure: my partner markets LED lamps to the commercial market.

Mario Salazar

Dec. 26, 2012, 9:11 p.m.

Kelly,
I am no ghost. I am not afraid of the crazies. I am a combat infantry veteran and don’t even have a gun. I am also an engineer retired from the Federal Government after 26 years.
The “We” were myself and my colleagues in the Underground Injection Control Program. The “political keepers” are the political appointees that are chosen under all administrations some times to keep laws unlawful, science unscientific and ethics unethical.
Unless you have been under a rock, “Civil Servants” are neither. They are (we were) employees of the executive and paid to do his bidding.
Google my name plus “21st Century Pacifist” and “Working for the Federal Government” to read an article that I wrote on the subject.

Here is the court decision that virtually neutered DEQ , where it concerns corporate interests.

Big energy contributions funneled to the Office of Management and Budget who allocates operational funding to the regulating agencies heavily influence regulatory interactions. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Bet you didn’t know they were job creators in the regulating sector too.

Under RCRA, costs of investigating accidents and releases that somehow escape into the public eye are routinely classified, and cost recovery from the offender is declined…. unless it’s a small company. If nobody sees the incident, it didn’t happen, no report.  By law, the companies are only required to report when they exceed limits of substances they are permitted for,....... everything else is a freebie.
If it’s big enough to require damage control, Enter, the smoke and mirrors consent decree, and it all goes away.


Self Reporting and backroom Consent Decrees are the main obstacles to any real regulation. The current rule of law protects the industry, while the bill goes to the taxpayer.

Appeal from District Court of Laramie County, case No. 92-89 , April 6, 1993,  HERMES CONSOLIDATED INC. V. PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF WYOMING, Supreme Court reversal of Federal District Court ruling, stated, at pg. 13, line 16, “This is a classic case of a citizen being whipsawed by a competing state agency.” And pg. 14, lines 18-31, “ This policy is not acceptable under RCRA.  42 U.S.C.  6902(a)(7) (1988). This flies directly in the face of the RCRA cooperative federalism design whereby a single agency, either state or federal, administers the RCRA program.42 U.S.C.  6926(b)&(d) (1988). RCRA does not contemplate that state and federal agencies will regulate simultaneously and thereby create a dual burden on the regulated industry. In order to ensure uniform national regulation of hazardous waste , RCRA emphasizes cooperation. 42 U.S.C.  6902(a) (1988).”

  “ We also stress that we do not undertake this decision because of a policy consideration which would favor business over the health of the citizens of this state. That judgment is not ours to make. We recognize that hazardous waste is a dangerous threat to humans and the environment. However , we are bound by the law in this case, which holds that pre-emption occurs when the state decree conflicts with the federal consent decree under RCRA, and in this case there is the additional consideration that the state has failed to become an authorized regulatory body under RCRA.”

  Pg. 3 31-, lines36 and pg.4, lines 1-2.  And lines 16- 26. States that establish a federally approved comprehensive hazardous waste management program can receive several benefits including:  federal grants in aid, access to federal technical expertise,control over enforcement, and elimination of secondary regulation by the federal government.  People v. Roth,  492 N.Y.S.2d 971,974 ((Co. Ct 1985)  (citing 42 U.S.C.A. 6902, 6926; 40 C.F.R.  271.1 et seq.)  Approval of a state program does not totally divest the federal government of future control over the state’s program nor does it give the state “unbridled” discretion in enforcement, Roth 492N.Y.S.2d at 974.
  Line 16,  As we recently observed in Pacific Gas and Electric Co. v.  Energy Resources Conservation & development Comm’n , 461 U.S. 190,  103 S.Ct. 1713,  75 L.Ed.2d 752 (1983), state law can be preempted in either of two general ways. If Congress evidences an intent to occupy a given field, any state law falling within that field is preempted.  If Congress has not entirely displaced state regulation over the matter in question, state law is still preempted to the extent it actually conflicts with federal law, that is, when it is impossible to comply with both state and federal law, or where the state law stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment of the full purpose and objectives of Congress
CONCLUSION
Pg. 15,  Because the remediation sought by the state conflicts with the remediation ordered by the United States District Court’s consent decree,  we hold that the state is preempted from asserting regulatory authority over the refinery. 
      For the reasons stated herein, we reverse and vacate the judgment and order entered by the District Court.

Mario Salazar

Dec. 26, 2012, 9:22 p.m.

Steve,
The amount of Hg in CFLs is minute. Chances are that you already have something in your home that contains Mercury. LEDs are probably a better solution for some applications, but would be too expensive for most consumers. One of the things people complain about is the cost of CFLs.
Unfortunately in many cases solutions are not the best. One can either wait until the perfect product is formulated and implemented or use the best available NOW. Hopefully the next iteration will give better results.

Mario Salazar

Dec. 26, 2012, 9:34 p.m.

!!! DISCLOSURE !!!
I am a proponent of Nuclear Energy. I am fairly knowledgeable on the subject and I have written articles about it. One was picked for a High School reference book. (21st Century Pacifist is my nom de plume)
In situ leaching of Uranium, which is the most used method of mining this metal, is safe if properly done. Technically it is a closed loop that maintains a positive gradient to the mining zone so that nothing moves into adjacent formations. After mining is completed, there is an obligation by law to keep all products of the mining within the mining zone.

To Geohydro2011,  Nope, no industry shill, I did some consulting in years past and am familiar with the site.  You really have a background in geohydrology and/or geology??? 

The shallow groundwater that is mined contains uranium from a natural process. So, I guess the “stupid” that “pollutes the aquifer” that you refer to is Mother Nature.  So, I guess you need to attack her.

As stated before, the operator does not “pollute” this shallow aquifer.  The uranium is extracted from it.  An aquifer exemption is granted by the EPA, but Wyoming rules require the groundwater to be restored to background concentrations, if at all possible.  Multiple aquifer sweeps, including a reverse osmosis process is implemented during the groundwater restoration process.  The groundwater has naturally occurring radionuclides far in excess of SDWA maximum contaminant levels.  So, if the water from this aquifer was to be used by a private individual or municipality for drinking, treatment of the radionuclides would have to occur.  Then, the municipality would still have the byproduct waste to dispose of. 

A different, deep injection UIC permit for deep injection is required for the process waste at an in-situ uranium facility.  (The article was not clear on the different types of permits required and was confusing to read.)  The injection zone for Christensen Ranch is approximately 6000-7000 feet deep and is the same formation that has oil and gas deposits else in the Powder River Basin. No town or private wells exist in this deep injection formation anywhere remotely close to the facility. 

The Madison formation aquifer referenced in the article, which does supply water to several Wyoming towns,  is approximately 16,000 feet deep (3 miles)  beneath the facility in question. (Out in the middle of the Powder River Basin.)  The Madison aquifer is relatively shallow close to the mountains (Big Horns, Black Hills)  where the towns water wells are drilled.  The depth of these wells would be in the range of several thousand feet or less.

And lastly, Geohydro, the proper permits were obtained in accordance with the Code of Federal Regulations and the Wyoming Dept. of Environmental Quality regulations.  No laws were broken and no bribes were given in obtaining the permits.  But folks now want to read sensationalism and the author of the article obliges, regardless of the little things called facts.  The author is counting on playing on the uninformed people’s emotions. (and looks like he did a good job!)  This article should have been published in the National Enquirer along with the other “pseudo-journalism”.

Will,
I think it is a little disingenuous to say that nothing is different in the formation once mining completes and the aquifer is restored. My experience is that the parameters used to define “background” levels are so generic and incomplete that the water in the formation is not the same once restoration is complete.
My beef is that companies make the money, the state and/or NRC/DoE declares it restored and when the aquifer has to be used as a source of drinking water, it is the tax payer that pays for the treatment.

@will…sure the permits were issued but only when exemptions to SDWA were sought and obtained—stupid exemptions at that. What is stupid is knowingly sending any contaminant downhole, including uranium, to, in the case here, forever contaminate a deeper freshwater aquifer—an aquifer that serves the needs of Gillette, WY. And for what? Fuel? Please. It’s for greed and money. Where do you store spent fuel rods for, oh I dunno, a few million years until they cool down? As of today, almost everywhere there’s a reactor. Smooth. Real smart. Commercial nuclear is stupid.

Will:
The proper permits according to Fed. Regs. and DEQ regs. are a joke. When EVERY item in the modeling put forth in a permit application to DEQ can be accurately refuted with (Documented FACTS) and DEQ still approves the permit, then openly ridicules the providers of those facts in the newspaper, there is a disconnect somewhere. Of course no laws were broken, it is a matter of lax permitting standards. If the people are to be protected, the governing laws need to be changed.

Sensationalism???? What rot,.... try reading my previous post, (above) I am speaking from years of DIRECT experience with the regulators and their ignorant rationalizations. Double speak doesn’t change the facts, but professed authority and official sounding rhetoric can certainly appease the fool.

And please don’t tell me that the strata dip down away from Gillette towards Christensen as the system is largely confined and as Toth and others have shown, water will flow seemingly uphill. Plus there are pumps today that can move so much water that you would need a model, far more powerful than a MODFLOW sim running on your 64 bit workstation, to adequately depict what is going on with Christensen in-situ mining—indeed at least one of the outlying monitoring wells show contaminant migration that has some scratching their heads. Duh, howd that happen deorge?

I am conflicted: on one hand I actually feel sorry for “me,’ and on the other, comforted knowing that some people like “me’ are willing to shine a lantern on the roaches. But to what avail? “Me” got beat up badly. And yet certain states act irresponsibly. Texas thinks groundwater can be mined like oil. Seriously, that is stupid. Kansas recently allowed fracking waste to be spread on ag lands. Seriously, what is wrong with people? In situ u-mining and fracking, as it exists today, are stupid. Just calling it the ways I see em.

google kingfisher creek gas geysers and find the pdf that ogs published…what would have been an outlier, a “Black Swan Theory” event I suspect will become commonplace under lax oversight and profit-driven attempts to save money on wells. Yeah, I am sure the Christensen u-in-situ-wells and the monitoring wells are all state of the art wells completed with utmost care.

Hey “Me”, to respond to your statement ” Here is the court decision that virtually neutered DEQ , where it concerns corporate interests.”  Visited a DEQ office not long ago.  No geldings, steers, or any guys that talked like Michael Jackson.  All seemed normal.  No neutering at all.  Not sure what you’re rambling about. 

Mario, I guess my experience is different.  Saw a full suite of parameters that were analyzed at several In situ uranium sites in Wyo.  All the major ions, metals, and radionucs were analyzed.  The groundwater in the production zone is not a legitimate source of drinking water to start with.  The TDS may be less than 10,000 ppm, but the radium 226 is very high.  The water adjacent to the uranium roll front deposits, can on the other hand, be quite good and should be protected as such.  If the groundwater is returned to a reducing environment (as in pre-mining), any remaining uranium in the groundwater should re-precipitate out. (The formation is put under oxidizing conditions to produce the uranium.)  And I’m sure that you know all this, but the info is just for some education on the process to others.  Not saying things are perfect at these facilities, but show me anywhere a large scale mining operation is perfect. 

Geohydro:  so, your contention is that the water being injected @ Christensen Ranch will migrate from the injection zone through several thousand feet of rock and into the Madison formation, against the underlying pressure gradient, then migrate 75 miles northeast to the Gillette well field. Sure, no problem.  And your geology degree is from where?  If you’re against nuclear power, that is your prerogative. However, that is not the issue at hand with this article.

geohydro2011:
There is no need for commiseration, it was an important learning process. I learned where the focus is needed, it’s just a matter of conveying that knowledge to others who are railing at the systemic failures of regulation. I can see the humor in my experience, though ultimately ineffective, at least I wasn’t one of their freebies. I WILL BE REMEMBERED, not kindly, but well.

Those who are yet to bear the brunt of the non-judical precedent that was set in my case are the ones to pity.

Maybe one day those who are still fighting the good fight will step back from their individual trees long enough to see that ALL the pollution issues are intertwined, that to effect change they must unite to change the LAW that governs the actions. Until then they are, as the Bible says,  kicking against the pricks.

This is why nuclear energy is so filthy and unnecessary.

Nuclear energy only provides 8.26% of the energy in the U.S.

That 8.26% could easily be conserved and every nuclear power plant in the U.S. could be shut down.

It’s not just the uranium mining, which by the way, uranium miners have a 5X increase in cancer.

Nuclear power plants can use up to 20,000 gallons of fresh water per MINUTE.

Nuclear power plants emit cancer-causing radiation into the air and water during their “normal” operations.

Nuclear power plants were shown in 2 studies to cause an increase in child leukemia to children living around nuclear power plants.

Look up radiation like Iodine 131 (thyroid cancer)  Cesium 137 (breast, pancreatic cancer)  Strontium (bone cancer)

These are the cancers that can be caused by nuclear power plants.

Not to mention what happens if there’s a metldown like happened in Japan in March 2011.

Children in Japan are suffering the effects of radiation; they eat contaminated food and drink contaminated milk; they can’t play outside, etc.

Learn everything you can about this issue for YOUR OWN GOOD.

Highly recommended:

www (dot) E N E N E W S (dot) com

www (dot) enformable (dot) com

Radchick on Facebook

Will:
Of course you don’t understand what I’m rambling on about. “The neutering”  rendered DEQ an agency without teeth, stripped of the ability to curtail abuses. The DEQ enforcement gentleman said their hands were tied by this decision, like us they too are severely limited and ineffective. EPA rules the roost.
Shame you can only relate to the proud cut personnel. Getting you to see any other view than your own is an exercise in futility. Why try?

Gee,  Cogema undermined the ranch then sold out in 2010 to “Uranium One, a Canadian-based comypany with majority Russian ownership” this is a little tidbit that scares me “Russia has 51% stake”. Not withstanding contamination issues, that is horrific enough, we should be asking why the U.S. is allowing a foreign country(s) to mine and vacuum to obtain yellowcake. Wouldn’t the State Dep’t or even DOD trump the EPA on this one?  This is not good for national security reasons.

John V. Lesko

Have you ever worked on a Thorium reactor? Didn’t think so. Another failed expert on a failed technology.

Like diamonds, uranium is controlled by one of the great monopoly’s. It gets down to one or two familys leaving the human race there toilet waste for 10,000 years. Capitalism is greed with lipstick.

To “Me”: 

FYI, the uranium industry is not regulated under RCRA, so your case discussed above doesn’t apply.

@will, yes I can easily see the uranium waste and other toxic migrate in ways not expected—the system is not static—and as more pumping withdrawals as well as injection pumping accrues, the local and regional water table and potentiometric surfaces of the confined aquifers fluctuates. Have fun trying to accurately model the flow paths of that system on a regional scale given that the centimeter scale governs infiltration and recharge events.

Will:
Lets keep the story straight here. All the energy industries are
interconnected .....by the funding of their respective regulative agencies, and the effect they have on the environment, therefore the populace. Follow the money, the many tentacles of THE octopus are then revealed. 

This holds true in ALL the regulative processes, including those ouside the energy industry, ie:  FDA, USDA, AMA, ETC

Why persist in diverting attn. from regulators and who pays their wages? I didn’t say the nuke industry was regulated ( UNDER ) RCRA, which is Resource Conservation and Recovery Agency, who can opt to seek or decline seeking recovery, of expenditure in (all agency) cases of incident investigations. Included in it’s other duties, such as classifying documents, shielding them from public purvue . 

I was lumping all regulators under one umbrella on funding. DEQ was the agency being referenced, was it not? Is the NRC not also funded through the OMB?

Ye, at the bottom, and those on the receiving end of the abuses argue back and forth, while the industry funds both sides of the argument and laugh at your ignorance. Keep everyone asserting THEIR superiority and knowledge, blind to those who control the strings of the marionettes. The puppeteer is master of both.

As long as you continue in this vein you are of no consequence, pissing and moaning changes nothing.
What a waste of valuable energy…......yours

Me, ya may need your meds adjusted a bit.

RCRA is a federal statute (ACT), not an agency.  Also, DEQ is a State agency although they likely receive federal grants. 

Don’t see that I’ve been pissing & moaning, just adding a little technical discussion.  Sorry that you had a bad experience way back when.  As for the DEQ having no teeth, I remember reading a couple of years ago that DEQ fined a company about 1.5 million dollars.  Pretty dang strong gums if they don’t have any teeth!

The EPA is not about protecting the environment. You can tell this by the way they named it; the feds usually call something the opposite of what it really is. The EPA is about collateralizing public lands (and the mineral and water rights) against loans from China. Is it a coincidence that Nixon opened relations with China AND established the EPA?

Mario Salazar

Dec. 27, 2012, 9:14 p.m.

Geohydro,
There was no exemption granted for the injection of waste. The exemption was only for the in-situ mining.
Exemptions cannot be granted for injection of waste.

Mario Salazar

Dec. 27, 2012, 9:43 p.m.

J. Dee,
While your statistics appear to me not to be substantiated, they pale in comparison with the effects of fossil fuels. The petro chemical industry is even worse.
Nuclear power is a lot safer than fossil fuels. Solar and other sustainable sources have to get better. So Nuclear is the best alternative we have now.
Careful when you repeat what the fossil fuel industry says to discredit nuclear energy. It is mostly BS, anecdotal and not really supported.

@mario…huh? that’s weird, the SDWA has a whole bunch of words dedicated to UIC exemptions. But whatever your concern, the point I make here is this: throwing uranium down a well to contaminate an aquifer is stupid. And it should be criminal.

There is 270,000 tons of nuclear weapons and LWR spent fuel
world wide, Dr Weinberg’s Thorium Molten Salt Breeder Reactor
can use both as a fuel to generate enough CO2 free thermal and
electrical power to power the entire world {all 7B+ of us} at our
standard of living for 50 years. Dr James Hansen, head of the NASA
Goddard Institute, lists the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor as a
positive tool in arresting CO2 atmospheric densities.

Mario,
Actually, yes, exemptions can be granted for injection of wastes. Aquifers can be exempted due to the fact that the aquifers are extremely deep and likely never used, the fact that they are already highly contaminated with other naturally occurring compounds, or if the aquifer is mineral commercial. 

In Wyoming the deep injection of wastes oftentimes occurs in a depleted oil bearing formation.  Since the Code of Fed Regulations stipulates that a USDW (the exempted aquifer being discussed in the article) is only based on TDS concentrations, you can have other constituents (e.g., oil) in it, but it still meets the federal criteria of USDW if the TDS is less than 10,000 ppm. By the way, the actual SDWA drinking water standard is only 500 ppm TDS.  The feds were looking at the treatability potential for TDS when writing the basis for USDW criteria.  In my opinion,  in addition to TDS, other constituents such as naturally occurring organic contaminants and radionuclides should be considered before calling an aquifer a USDW. 

When the whole aquifer exemption process was set up in the early 80’s, the Feds did realize that there would be significant impacts to industry if an exemption process wasn’t set up. (bkgd info is available on the web.)  Also, I doubt that regs written in D.C. took into consideration deep Wyoming basins, where you can have sedimentary water bearing zones at 20,000 feet. 

@ Geohydro,  Deep injection wells are not injecting into shallow aquifers and are not injecting into pristine deep aquifers.  These injection zones are typically 1.5 to 2 miles deep.  Also, a groundwater aquifer can have 1000 times the SDWA groundwater standard for a contaminant (lead for instance) and still technically meet the criteria for a USDW described above and written about in the article.  Although I not always a fan of the EPA,  I think they have done a very good job with the UIC program & aquifer exemptions.  I’ve dealt with both the state & federal officials and they have some very good people working there, regardless of what the yahoo writing this article implies.

Curses, I was censored, why? who knows. Just getting back to Will.
You are correct RCRA is an act, but just because fines are levied doesn’t necessarily mean they get paid.
Guess I should keep my useless drivel to myself and give everyone a break.

@will…ur still throwing toxic waste down a hole. Uranium stays toxic for quite a long time, certainly toxic over geologic time, time enough for orogeny and erosion to occur on big spatial scales. The Rio Grande rift continues to rift, what will that spreading zone look like by the time this uranium decays?. But screw the future, huh? They is just a bunch of chumps, huh?

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Injection Wells

Injection Wells: The Hidden Risks of Pumping Waste Underground

Injection wells used to dispose of the nation’s most toxic waste are showing increasing signs of stress as regulatory oversight falls short and scientific assumptions prove flawed.

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