Uranium mining stands to be pummeled by a proposed Environmental Protection Agency rule that would extend monitoring efforts of a well field to three decades, according to Johnson County Commissioner Bill Novotny.
The EPA’s proposed rule change would set a three-year monitoring standard, followed by 30 years of stability monitoring. Companies could decrease the 30-year monitoring minimum by providing sufficient evidence of the well field’s long-term stability.
Local economic impact
Johnson County commissioners attended the EPA’s public meeting on the proposed rule May 24 in Casper. Novotny presented figures from the county assessor as evidence of the economic and employment boon that uranium represents locally. Novotny said Proposed Rule 192, known as Health and Environmental Protection Standards for Uranium and Thorium Mill Tailings, disregards the potential economic detriment to local communities.
In 2014, the county’s overall valuation was $850 million. Two percent of that, or $16 million, came from uranium production, according to the county assessor’s office.
Energy is taxed multiple ways, but local communities benefit most from ad valorum tax levied on oil, gas and other minerals. The ad valorum tax, or property tax from uranium in Johnson County, brought in $719,380 in 2014, according to the assessor’s office.
Commissioner Jim Hicks said the proposed change is regulatory overreach.
Thirty years of monitoring would mean that companies would have to wait three decades before shutting down mines for reclamation, Hicks said. During that time, infrastructure and roads would have to be maintained, with a skeleton crew on hand to monitor and maintain the facilities. The cost would cripple uranium companies, he said.
“Every one of the operators that testified (at the public meeting) said the same thing; it would force them to shut down,” Hicks said.
The EPA contends that current regulations were set before in situ recovery was developed and do not take the unique risks of that extraction method into account.
Eight out of the 10 operating uranium mines in the U. S. use ISR to extract uranium, according to the U. S. Energy Information Administration’s 2014 report. The ISR technique injects oxygenated groundwater into the uranium rich subsurface, generally sandstone. The water absorbs the uranium and is pumped back to the surface.
In 2012, Wyoming Public Radio reported on uranium concerns on the Wind River Reservation. WPR reported that uranium levels were nearly twice the legal limit and stemmed from “1.8 million cubic yards of radioactive waste left behind by the Susquehanna Western uranium mill that operated from 1958 to 1963.” While that uranium wasn’t mined with the ISR method, uranium operations still concern many in that area.
According to the proposed rule, current remediation standards do not address the long-term possibility of the radioactive mineral impacting groundwater and surface water. Further, Proposed Rule 192 does not hold the uranium licensee fiscally responsible for clean up should long-term contamination as a result of ISR occur, the rule says.
A local company’s frustration
Uranerz CEO and President Glenn Catchpole said the proposed rule came out of the blue, unanticipated and unwarranted.
Uranerz operates on Nichols Ranch in southeast Johnson County and employs a crew of 45, according to Catchpole.
Catchpole, who has been in the uranium business for 30 years, said the idea that it would take that long to monitor the post-mining conditions of the area around a mine was impractical. He said the industry didn’t understand the impetus of the sudden proposal or how the EPA came to the 33-year figure.
“Typically, when we finish mining, we have to restore the water quality and the aquifer. That can take, generally speaking, up to two to three years to do the restoration,” Catchpole said. “(EPA) did not make an effort to have a dialogue with the industry, the state of Wyoming or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”
Catchpole said the science EPA is using to justify the ruling is insufficient, based on conjecture not fact.
The agency ignored the 35 years of data available on ISR that demonstrates the industry’s control of the contamination risks, Catchpole said.
“As I understand it, they didn’t look at that data, “Catchpole said. “So we are asking them to do that. We are asking them to interact with us and let us present some technical, scientific information to them.”
According to Catchpole, a number of research studies about in situ leaching are ongoing, at the University of Colorado and in Los Alamos, NM.
“We ask that they let that research be completed, and it will be peer reviewed, before they make this ruling,” Catchpole said. “We don’t know if they will do that. But we have asked them to.”