U.S. EPA is proposing new water protection and monitoring regulations for a controversial form of uranium mining, according to a copy obtained by Greenwire.
Administrator Gina McCarthy signed the proposed rule Dec. 31, and the agency is scheduled to make it public in the near future. The proposal comes under EPA's effort to address concerns surrounding in-situ recovery uranium extraction sites.
In-situ recovery, also known as in-situ leach, involves injecting fluids underground to free uranium deposits, which are then pumped out. It is now, where geologically possible, the preferred method for uranium mining.
The proposed rule, according to an agency fact sheet, sets standards for companies to study existing water resources prior to the mining process.
While environmentalists complain the practice jeopardizes drinking water resources, the industry maintains it only touches already-polluted water (Greenwire, Dec. 23, 2011). Companies generally have to obtain an aquifer protection exemption from EPA.
The new proposed EPA standards would require companies to comply with whichever standard is tougher -- either under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act -- to protect water from 13 pollutants.
"If the water in the aquifer meets the ground water standards before ISR operations begin," said the fact sheet, "it would have to be restored to meet them again after operations have stopped."
However, if the concentration of pollutants like arsenic, cadmium, chromium, uranium and others already exceeds standards, then companies would have to restore the water to pre-operational conditions.
And if companies can't achieve that standard, the rule says, then they can request a so-called alternate concentration limit, as long as they meet certain conditions.
Environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Information Network for Responsible Mining, Uranium Watch and several others are now looking forward to weighing in on the long-awaited rule and are likely to push for stronger standards.
"Given the problems the industry has had with groundwater restoration, aquifers have been left much more contaminated than they were prior to mining," said Shannon Anderson, organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council. "New standards are desperately needed to better protect dwindling groundwater supplies in our Western states.
National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich said the group opposes the proposal for several reasons. "First," he said, "the requirement for three decades of post-recovery monitoring when there is no evidence in 40 years of experience that in-situ uranium mining presents an environmental risk justifying this extreme requirement."
Popovich also said the rule would discourage investment in new and existing uranium mining. "Another day, another dumb rule," he said.
EPA is also moving forward with new rules for conventional uranium mining and milling facilities.
Last May, it proposed an update to radon emission standards by eliminating numeric limits on radon emissions and, instead, having uniform requirements for "generally available control technology" to achieve compliance and protect the environment (Greenwire, May 2).
Environmental advocates faulted the agency for its proposal and for not holding a hearing closer to Toronto, Ontario-based Energy Fuels Inc.'s White Mesa mill in southern Utah, the only operating conventional uranium mill in the country.
"The EPA is setting the White Mesa Mill up to be the next chapter in the toxic legacy of uranium mill contamination on the Colorado Plateau," said Jennifer Thurston, director of the Information Network for Responsible Mining, in a statement.
Energy Fuels, for its part, is also questioning EPA facts surrounding the proposal. The company said in June the agency's action "could potentially make it impossible to operate our existing facilities and build some of our proposed facilities."
Last year, the Grand Canyon Trust sued Energy Fuels in Utah U.S. District Court over radon releases. A company spokesman denied the group's allegations.
Groups have also been fighting a permit for a proposed conventional uranium mill in Colorado, which would be the first new one in decades in the United States.
Energy Fuels had been expanding operations in the country but recently sold the permit to private investors, including the company's previous CEO, amid a slump in uranium prices.
This year, however, the company announced a merger with Wyoming-based Uranerz Energy Corp. to create the top uranium mining company focused on U.S. assets.
Uranium producers had long been hoping for a mining renaissance to fuel new nuclear power plants. But the 2011 meltdown in Japan hurt the industry dramatically. A pound of uranium was selling for about $35, according to tracker Ux Consulting Co. But it was selling for more than $70 before the meltdown and for about $60 right after.
Still, producers such as Energy Fuels see the expected growth in nuclear production around the globe, particularly from China, as eventually providing demand to sustain U.S. mining plans.