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Natural Resources & Energy

Federal Uranium Contamination Rule Withdrawn

Generalized Schematic of ISR Extraction Process for Uranium
United States Environmental Protection Agency

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has withdrawn a proposed rule that would limit contamination of groundwater from uranium mining long-term. The regulation was proposed on former President Barack Obama's last day in office.

The form of mining is called in-situ recovery (ISR); it's the only technique used in Wyoming. It retrieves uranium from aquifers by drilling an injection well and then using liquid to mobilize it and produce it. The problem is that same mobilization technique brings out other chemicals and heavy metals like lead, arsenic, and mercury. Those contaminate the aquifer water and potentially seep into other groundwaters.

The proposed rule under Obama would have set standards requiring operators to do long-term monitoring of groundwater conditions while lowering how much of each chemical is allowed. Both would be stricter than Wyoming's current standards. The federal version would require quarterly monitoring over three years rather than one ensuring contaminant concentrations remained at pre-mine levels.

Travis Deti, president of the Wyoming Mining Association, said state-level regulation is enough.

"It was simply unnecessary, an overzealous federal agency under a different administration with the goal of curbing and eventually eliminating uranium extraction," he said.

In its announcement, the EPA's Acting Administration Andrew Wheeler said the rule would have imposed a significant burden on uranium miners and communities that rely on them.

Deti said ISR mining also causes little waste given the water going in and coming out with uranium moves cyclically.

"The way it works, the water goes through and it's simply circulated through the mine, through the ore body and just continually circulated, there really is no waste right now, how we're mining it," he said.

The National Resource Defense Council found no groundwater near ISR mines have been returned to pre-mine conditions.

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