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EPA documents: Uranium mine permit would allow aquifer contamination Print

BY BOBBY MAGILL This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it
Fort Collins Coloradoan
December 18, 2009

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency documents show the EPA has been working closely with uranium mine developer Powertech USA for nearly two years on a permit application that would allow the company to contaminate an aquifer beneath its proposed Centennial Project in Weld County.

All of the consultation was closed to the public, said Matthew Garrington of Environment Colorado, the group that obtained the documents from the EPA.

According to the documents, the EPA, with the help of Powertech, has been developing internal guidance documents that will govern how the agency reviews Powertech's application for a mine permit. The permit will allow Powertech to contaminate a portion of an aquifer with the company's in situ leach uranium mining process.

The in situ leaching process involves pumping a sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda, solution into the ground, dissolving the uranium and pumping the radioactive liquid to the surface, where the uranium is recovered from the solution.

The permit the company must receive from the EPA is called a "Class III" permit, which is required by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Powertech has not yet applied for the permit.

"One reason the Centennial Project is receiving this level of technical scrutiny is because many residences located near the proposed Centennial Project rely on private wells for their drinking water, and many of those drinking water wells are completed in the same Fox Hills Formation aquifer as the mining zone aquifer," according to one October 2008 internal EPA document.

EPA spokesman Richard Mylott said Thursday that document does not reflect the agency's current approach to Class III permitting.

Environment Colorado, Coloradoans Against Resource Destruction and other groups on Thursday sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jack-son urging her to open to the public any internal proceedings regarding the regulation of Powertech and its mine to the public.

In November, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey, both Democrats, urged the EPA's regional director to do the same.

Garrington said the documents show the government working too closely with industry.

"The documents show EPA consulted directly with industry asking how the industry would like to be regulated," he said. "Of course, the industry should have a role in that process, but it shouldn't happen behind closed doors."

Most of the e-mails Environment Colorado obtained regard an "aquifer exemption," and "aquifer exemption boundary," which is the extent to which the EPA may allow Powertech to contaminate the aquifer as part of the uranium mining process.

The e-mails between the EPA and Powertech partners, Knight Piesold Consulting and R2 Incorporated, discuss where the aquifer exemption boundary should be placed.

In an April 2008 e-mail between EPA Underground Injection Control staffer Valois Shea and an R2 Incorporated employee, Shea asks if draft figures in a Class III permit application checklist comport with R2's expectations.

"You will get to be the pioneering guinea pig that will make life easier for others following in your path," Shea writes.

Powertech Vice President Richard Blubaugh said Thursday such consultation with the EPA was both informal and standard practice.

Class III permit applicants are "encouraged to go in and meet with the agency to understand what the requirements are," he said. "Their regulations are complex. It really is something everybody does. It's just routine to go in and talk to find out how they interpret the rule and what they expect to see in the application."

Mylott agreed, saying it's both normal and in the public's best interest for the EPA to discuss the technical aspects of in situ leaching with Powertech. The EPA's underground injection control program, he said, is designed to protect drinking water.

"Achieving that goal depends on a solid understanding of what the permit applicant intends to do and the steps that will be taken to protect drinking water sources," Mylott said.

Regardless of EPA regulations, the state will require Powertech to completely clean up the aquifer after mining is complete.

The EPA is currently considering another permit for the Centennial Project called a "Class V" permit, which governs an injection well pump test the company plans to conduct.

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