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Barrasso questions proposed EPA in-situ uranium standards

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is overstepping its authority and endangering an industry by proposing extensive new standards to protect groundwater from uranium mining, said a U.S. senator from Wyoming, the top uranium-mining state.

The EPA earlier this year proposed the standards to account for how nearly all uranium produced in the U.S. nowadays comes from in-situ mining rather than conventional mining.

In-situ mining involves pumping into the ground a solution to dissolve minerals, then pumping out of the ground a solution containing uranium. The EPA maintains it has authority under federal laws to update contamination standards for implementation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The standards are too stringent and threaten the uranium extraction industry, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said at a Wednesday hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

"I believe the EPA is once again asserting power over another area of the economy even though they are not the primary agency that congress created to manage and oversee uranium production. That role belongs to the NRC," Barrasso said.

He asked NRC officials if EPA had sufficiently consulted with them about the proposed standards.

"I think the NRC and EPA have a very solid, ongoing working relationship," NRC Commissioner William Ostendorff said. "We have, however, as an agency, identified concerns with perhaps their regulatory footprint going into our jurisdictional issues and dictating how certain methods are to be used by our licensees."

EPA officials declined to respond to Barrasso's remarks. The EPA received more than 1,700 substantive comments during a public comment period on the proposed rules that ended May 27, EPA spokeswoman Christie St. Clair said by email.

"EPA is currently evaluating the comments and information received and will proceed to follow the official rulemaking process," St. Clair wrote.

The EPA anticipates publication of the final rules in the Federal Register next April.

In-situ mining in Wyoming accounts for over half of U.S. uranium production. Wyoming has four of the seven operational in-situ uranium mines in the U.S. Two are in Texas and one in Nebraska.

Others still in need of full permitting are in South Dakota and New Mexico.

The rules would set groundwater protection standards at in-situ mines for substances including arsenic, cadmium and selenium. Once mining begins, a cleanup plan would need to be in place no later than 90 days of any contamination detected in monitoring wells away from the mining area.

The rules also would require long-term groundwater monitoring after mining ends. Monitoring could continue for as long as 30 years rather than just a few years currently.

There is no guarantee a mine operator could be held responsible for cleaning up contamination discovered by new monitoring decades from now, the proposed rule published Jan. 26 asserts.

"It is likely, however that the costs of such future remediation would far exceed the costs of the more extensive monitoring (in all phases of site activity) that we are proposing," the EPA wrote.

The EPA proposal "ignores the successful 40-year history of in-situ recovery projects," Barrasso said at the hearing.

However, some Wyoming in-situ uranium mines have a history of off-site underground contamination problems known as excursions. Cameco in 2008 paid a then-record $1 million state fine for such problems at its Smith Ranch-Highland mine in Converse County.

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