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Groups Call On EPA To Overhaul Underground Aquifer Program

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Several environmental groups filed a petition Wednesday with the Environmental Protection Agency in an effort to overhaul a program that exempts underground aquifers from protection under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Back in the 1980’s, the EPA adopted the Aquifer Exemption Program to make underground water available for use in industries like oil and gas and uranium mining. At the time, many of the aquifers were considered undrinkable or inaccessible. But Policy Analyst Amy Mall with the Natural Resources Defense Council says times have changed and we’ll need cleaner, more drinkable water as droughts worsen.

“What’s happened since the 1980’s is that we learned a whole lot more through science about how to determine where aquifers are, how to protect water quality, how to determine if water is truly of drinking water quality,” she says.

She says Wyoming’s oil and gas and uranium industries are a particular threat to aquifers like the Minnelusa Aquifer near Gillette.

“That aquifer covers approximately 1400 square miles, roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island. It’s one of the largest aquifer exemptions in the entire country. And what that means is that industry can inject waste or chemicals into that aquifer.”

Mall says with population growth, drought and water contamination like that experienced in Flint, Michigan, there is a need to re-evaluate the federal Aquifer Exemption Program. 

She says her organization, together with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, Clean Water Action and and the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, hope to see the EPA open the program up to public comment in coming months. 

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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