While the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission both oversee uranium mining, when it comes to an Obama-era rule to protect groundwater, EPA needs to take a step back, according to Sen. John Barrasso.
In a letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on Thursday, the Wyoming senator notes a disagreement between the two agencies in regard to the proposed rule that, among other constraints, would require uranium companies to do 30 years of groundwater monitoring after in situ mining.
The EPA put the rule out for public comment one day before Barack Obama left office.
Barrasso says the rule should be retracted as it oversteps EPA’s authority. The NRC has made similar comments.
Barrasso has not been shy about his feelings about the EPA, which he argues took on too much power during the Obama presidency. Overlapping authorities has been a key argument from various industries in Wyoming when it comes to federal law. From permitting oil and gas wells, to complying with air quality regulations, a common complaint from industry groups is duplicity of federal rules and the associated cost.
Environmental groups tend to disagree, preferring strong federal rules that set a baseline for state standards.
Barrasso quotes the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in stressing that this rule doesn’t address any proven health or safety concerns with in situ mining. According to the NRC, in situ mining hasn’t resulted in contamination of an aquifer in its 40-year history under the NRC.
Noting the current low price environment for uranium, Barrasso suggested urgency from the EPA in withdrawing its rule, echoing the directive from President Donald Trump earlier this year that regulations that are unduly costly to industry should be reconsidered.
“It is incumbent upon EPA to refrain from imposing regulations that are not technically feasible or are unreasonably burdensome on licensees,” Barrasso wrote.
The uranium industry has long pushed back on the rule for much the same reasons stated in Barrasso’s letters.
“Most of it was impossible to comply with from a practical or even a scientific basis,” said Paul Goranson, executive vice president of operations for Energy Fuels. The firm owns the Nichols Ranch in situ uranium mine in the Powder River Basin.
Industry tried to negotiate with the EPA in 2016, Goranson said.
“They laughed in our face,” he said. “There was no compromise.”
Environmental groups say it’s about time that in situ mining’s impact on groundwater was regulated. Current standards only apply to conventional uranium mining, while in situ is directly interfering in the aquifer, they say.
The EPA is well within its right to regulate groundwater and uranium, they argue.
The EPA sets up the standards, the NRC implements them, according to federal law, said Shannon Anderson, lawyer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council.
“That’s how that law has always worked,” she said.
The group supports the EPA rule, though it’s unclear what will happen under the new administration.
“It’s definitely time to get some good standards out there protecting groundwater from uranium,” she added.