EPA effort to boost uranium mining leaves green groups worried about water

EPA effort to boost uranium mining leaves green groups worried about water
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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday took action to bolster the struggling uranium mining industry that environmentalists warn risks contaminating the West’s limited water supplies.

An agreement between the agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission limits the EPA’s authority to regulate so-called in situ leach (ISL) recovery of uranium, which involves dissolving minerals deep underground and pumping them to the surface for processing. Environmentalists have cautioned against the method because of its risk for polluting groundwater.

“This is an important step towards establishing a robust domestic uranium mining industry, which is increasingly important for the national security interests of the U.S.,” EPA Administrator Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden officials unveil plan to conserve 30 percent of US lands and water | Watchdog questions adequacy of EPA standards for carcinogenic chemical emissions | Interior proposing revocation of Trump-era rollback on bird protections Ex-Trump Interior, EPA leaders find new posts Senate votes to nix Trump rule limiting methane regulation MORE said in a release after traveling to Wyoming, a large mining state, to sign the memorandum of understanding.


“In situ uranium mining is a proven safe and cost-effective way to provide fuel for America’s nuclear power plants, which supports thousands of jobs and is a large source of emissions-free energy," he added. 

Uranium, a key ingredient for nuclear fuel, has seen its price largely decline over the last decade. 

The administration has made numerous moves to help the industry, starting with a 2017 declaration from President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote READ: Liz Cheney's speech on the House floor Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' MORE making uranium a critical mineral for national security purposes. 

An April report from the Nuclear Fuels working group outlined a number of ways to “pull America’s nuclear industrial base from the brink of collapse.” 

But critics say the U.S. doesn’t need to prop up a struggling and polluting domestic industry when the bulk of uranium imports come from allies such as Canada, Australia and Kazakhstan. 


EPA proposed its most recent regulation on ISL recovery on President Obama’s last day in office — something Sen. John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoBiden to meet with GOP senators amid infrastructure push Republican seeks to use Obama energy policies to criticize Biden  EPA proposes major rule to reduce certain greenhouse gases MORE (R-Wyo.) has asked the agency to withdraw for nearly as long.

That proposal, which never took effect, would have required uranium mining companies to study nearby aquifers before mining, use strong monitoring while drilling to detect any leeching, and fully restore aquifers to their previous condition after any contamination. 

“In every single instance ISL uranium mining operations have heavily contaminated the mined aquifer and then failed in attempts to restore that contaminated aquifer,” the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) wrote in a letter urging the Trump administration to keep the tougher regulations proposed under Obama.

“How much scarce western groundwater has been permanently contaminated by the ISL uranium industry is still an open question.”

Geoff Fetus, the NRDC's senior attorney on nuclear issues, said the group is reviewing the agreement and weighing its legal options.

Barrasso, however, called the agreement a “major win for uranium production in Wyoming,” which will in turn help support nuclear power.

“The Trump administration is limiting unnecessary regulations and making it easier for American companies to do business,” he said.