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Native Sun News: EPA hears Native views about uranium mining

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Rosebud Sioux tribal member Christiane Lee Losch tells an EPA panel in Casper on May 13: “It is preposterous” for foreign companies to demand leniency in the use of local water.” Photo by Talli Nauman

EPA hears local and Indian views on mining uranium in aquifers
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

CASPER, Wyo. –– During public hearings May 12-14, nuclear industry representatives and their supporters lined up to tell the EPA that uranium companies can’t stay in business if they have to protect groundwater to the extent that EPA prescribes in draft rules for in-situ mining and milling.

Meanwhile Native Americans and other concerned citizens argued that in-situ production is unsafe if the industry can’t comply with the impending regulation. The bulk of their testimony favored adoption of the rules amendment and called for additional measures to prevent more pollution than in situ has caused to date.

“This proposed rulemaking will make the cost of producing domestically high enough to discourage investment and send money off-shore,” said William Paul Goranson, president and CEO of Uranerz Energy Corp., a Canadian company operating in-situ at the Nichols Ranch in the Powder River Basin, 60 miles south of Gillette, Wyoming.

Rosebud Sioux tribal member Christiane Lee Losch argued that the money already leaves the country. “Most of the investment in this damaging technology comes from outside the United States, where the profits also go – abroad,” she said.

“In that respect, it is preposterous for the representatives paid by these companies to request and repeat demands for leniency from the federal regulatory agency, which is mandated to protect our domestic environment and resources.”

Citing hundreds of violations of existing federal rules for in-situ mining, she said, “The very companies that are responsible for these violations are the ones asking for greater leniency.”

The controversy aired in front of a three-member panel of federal administrators who gathered comments in Chadron, Nebraska, and Casper, Wyoming, on draft Health and Environmental Protection Standards for Uranium and Thorium Mill Tailings (40 CFR 192).

Solution mining, also known as in-situ leaching (ISL) or in-situ recovery (ISR), “has become the predominant method of uranium extraction in the United States,” since the most recent revision of the standards 20 years ago, the EPA said in justifying the code revision.

“The standards are intended to address the shift” and respond to a court ruling for an update, the agency stated in a Federal Register notice. “ISR has a greater potential to directly affect groundwater than does conventional milling,” the agency noted.

The nuclear industry has favored ISL over conventional mining and milling because it avoids excavation and disposal of overburden, lowering production costs. The in-situ method also reduces labor costs, since fewer workers are needed.

Predominantly promoted on and near the nation’s largest Indian reservations, the technique requires chemicals to dissolve uranium deposits found in underground water tables, pumping the uranium-rich solution to above-ground facilities where it is refined into yellow-cake for shipment, treatment and disposition of associated toxics, as well as millions of gallons of contaminated water, and finally restoration and monitoring of disturbed resources.

EPA calculated the annual cost of compliance with the proposed regulations at $13.5 million. It also examined potential impacts on small businesses that own and operate ISR operations.

It found that the estimated cost of complying is 0.6 to 1.7 percent of estimated 2015 revenues for three small firms that own ISR operations.

“Because costs do not exceed 2 percent of estimated sales, and because EPA projects that fewer than 10 small businesses will be affected by the rule at any given time, EPA concluded that the proposed rule would not result in significant impacts for a substantial number of small entities,” it said.

In releasing the draft rules, the agency said, “EPA recognizes that groundwater is a valuable resource, and is becoming more valuable as groundwater use increases.”

Companies currently conduct groundwater monitoring for an average of about 6 months after restoration, “which may not be long enough to detect instability in groundwater conditions,” the agency said. It wants to require a 30-year long-term stability monitoring period.

“The proposed rule will reduce the risk of undetected excursions of pollutants into adjacent aquifers. This in turn will reduce the human health risks that could result from exposures to radionuclides in well water used for drinking or agriculture in areas located down-gradient from an ISR,” it said.

“Because radionuclides are human carcinogens, the main health risk averted would be cancer.” EPA estimated at least $8 million worth of premature death costs could be avoided by reducing cancer deaths with this precaution.

“In addition to avoiding human health impacts, the proposed rule has the potential to detect excursions sooner and thus enable a faster remedial response,” it said. The estimated savings in remediation costs would range from $8.8 million to more than $500 million, it calculated.

The regulations include ensuring that groundwater is restored to its initial condition and that the condition remains stable, after operation is over.

The agency has been consulting with stakeholders on crafting the rules since 2010. That year it held public hearings in Casper and Denver, where 79 percent of input came from industry. This year, the Casper hearings followed others in Texas, and were the result of industry and federal legislative delegation requests to EPA.

The Chadron hearings were the result of requests from area water watchdogs and interveners in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission contested permit hearings for proposed renewal and expansion of nearby Crow Butte in-situ mines and mills in Dawes County, as well as for proposed opening of Dewey-Burdock in-situ operations, which would be the first of their kind in South Dakota.

(Talli Nauman, Health and Environment Editor for Native Sun News can be reached at talli.nauman@gamail.com)

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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