State environmental regulators and a uranium company are at odds over whether the company allowed precursors of uranium contamination to seep into test water wells near their field.
The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality served Cameco Resources, owner of the Smith Ranch-Highland uranium facility north of Glenrock, with a violation notice in early March. Agency officials and Cameco are in discussions about the notice.
The violation occurred after data indicated a split in a well casing, according to Robin Jones, land quality supervisor for DEQ District 1. The state says faulty equipment contributed to the spread of lixiviant, a solution used to leach uranium from the ground.
But officials with Cameco question the state’s judgment in calling what happened a violation.
“We believe it was issued prematurely,” company spokesman Ken Vaughn said. “We conducted tests, including the installation of an adjacent test well, which indicated there was no lateral movement of mining solution in the area.”
Vaughn said Cameco was served with a violation notice “days” before a meeting with the DEQ set to review the company’s new data. The company and state officials have since had discussions about what measures to take.
The discussion centers around whether the company’s equipment allowed the spread of elements which signal uranium moving away from the well field, commonly referred to as an “excursion.”
Regulators first noticed the spread of disallowed contaminants in August, after tests from monitoring well outside the operating well field.
Excursions aren’t uncommon and don’t necessarily indicate a contamination, but are analogous to a smoke alarm. The state requires action to clean up the problem before anything worse can happen.
Cameco pumped and then plugged the problematic well in order to solve the problem. But the company questions whether an excursion caused by mining ever really took place.
Jones said the excursion isn’t what earned Cameco the violation.
“It’s not really technically a violation for an excursion,” he said. “It’s a violation for an operational control” failure.
The Smith Ranch-Highland complex is permitted to produce up to 5.5 million pounds of uranium every year. The company produced about a fifth of that in 2012.
Both Jones and Vaughn said the parties are in frequent contact about what comes next. Jones said one request the state has made is for installation of new monitoring wells between producing wells and existing monitoring wells, on the periphery of the field.
“The main point is we’re working with DEQ,” Vaughn said. “We’ll get this resolved.”