The Horns of Our National Dilemma

In November 2010, Wyoming officials asked the EPA to exempt every layer of water below the Lance, regardless of its quality or whether it was being used by the mine, and without additional study. The water quality at those depths was “not reliably known,” they wrote. The EPA should apply the exemptions to all of the deep aquifers, they said, “whether or not they meet the definitions of u2018 underground sources of drinking water’.”

For the EPA, Wyoming’s request opened up a morass of legal and environmental concerns.

In the eight years since the agency had approved the last exemption at the ranch, its scientists had grown increasingly convinced that the deep layers of aquifers beneath the property might contain one of the state’s largest reserves of good water. One layer, the Madison, is described in a state assessment as “probably the most important high-yield aquifer in Wyoming” and supplies drinking water to the city of Gillette.

This is an excerpt from the middle of a well written, thoughtful, “balancing both sides of the issue” investigative article.  And it’s the balancing both sides of the issue that is the most difficult part of the national debate.  At what point do property rights and the need for raw materials legitimately conflict with the health and safety of the community at large?


As dry as this land may be, underground, vast reservoirs hold billions of gallons of water suitable for drinking, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Yet every day injection wells pump more than 200,000 gallons of toxic and radioactive waste from uranium mining into Christensen’s aquifers.


When we are facing climate change, and increasingly large areas of chronic drought, our water resources are becoming more and more precious.  These are fossil waters, trapped between layers of rock.  Not being replenished through the water cycle.  When they are polluted or used up, they are gone.  The rancher in this article has already found his home well has gone from healthy to a drip.

What are the people of Wyoming supposed to drink when this source of water is contaminated?  The injection chemicals, the radioactive residues, all of these things are going to be there until they are removed.  And there is a thing in Chemistry called the Law of Diminishing Returns.  That once two or more items are combined, they can never be completely separated again.  So the rancher’s dream that his best water wasn’t sacrificed is just that, a dream.

Knowing this, does it make sense to keep using injection wells to mine the uranium?  Should he accept the inevitable and allow open mining on his land?  That would put radioactive tailings on the surface, but they can be pushed back into the hole and covered up.  Should the EPA protect the underground water by stopping the mining?  And if they do, what kind of precedence does that set for owner’s property rights?  We have already lost so many property rights.

And what does it say for the State of Wyoming, that they don’t care if the water supply for the city of Gillette is contaminated?  Don’t they have an obligation to protect the health and safety of their citizens, current and future?

This is one we have to get right.  Our great-grandchildren are counting on us.

Thousands of small black boxes used for uranium mining are scattered across Christensen Ranch in Wyoming. (Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)


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