n 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.
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.
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.
Read more at Sacrificing Tomorrow’s Water to Mine Uranium Today