Radioactive waste and a community’s drinking water don’t mix well together. I learned that 20 years ago, early in my career as an environmental lawyer, when we went after oil companies for their improper and often illegal dumping activities. What some of these energy giants were doing was taking the produced water from the drilling process — which dredged up radioactive material deep under the earth — and then dumping in unlined pits or other unsound landfills in Mississippi and elsewhere across the Deep South. Over the year, it’s been quite a struggle to halt this unsafe practice, given the power of Big Oil and its political connections.
That said, this report published today by ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning, non-profit investigative reporting outfit, about the legal pollution of a potential significant source of drinking water, is shocking and disturbing:
Christensen has made ends meet by allowing prospectors to tap into minerals and oil and gas beneath his bucolic hills. But from the start, it has been a Faustian bargain.
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.
What is happening in this remote corner of Wyoming affects few people other than Christensen — at least for now.
But a roiling conflict between state and federal regulators over whether to allow more mining at Christensen Ranch — and the damage that comes with it — has pitted the feverish drive for domestic energy against the need to protect water resources for the future. The outcome could have far-reaching implications, setting a precedent for similar battles sparked by the resurgence of uranium mining in Texas, South Dakota, New Mexico and elsewhere.
The ProPublica report explains that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued about 1,500 of these permits for uranium and other types of mining — making the calculation that the underground water polluted by these radioactive wastes was too deep for people to drink. But as the article notes, drinking water in the West and elsewhere in the United States has become more scarce, while the technology for tapping into deep aquifers — like the one underneath the Christiansen Ranch — got better. The ruination of these potential water sources is a waste in every sense of the word.
There’s something deeper here. The more desperate that we get in our quest for fossil fuels or energy sources like uranium deep under the ground, the more harm we’re doing to our environment. We’re seeing this now with the fracking boom that is taking place across much of the United States — drillers producing polluted, radioactive wastewater with no where to put it except into our aquifers or our rivers. It’s the same as in the oil patch down in the Gulf, or as uranium mining in Wyoming. And it will continue to happen as long as our leaders don’t start looking more seriously at alternative forms of energy.
It’s beginning to look like 2013 is going to be a make or break year for fracking in the United States. On the big screen, the Oscar buzz about the soon-to-be-released Matt Damon movie “Promised Land” should bring the issue to the forefront for citizens who hadn’t been paying attention. Politically, leaders such as New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo and the Obama administration in Washington have critical decisions to make on whether to allow fracking and how stringently we will regulate it. The notion of injecting so much radioactive water into potential sources of drinking water ought to be a warning sign: America’s energy policy does not need tinkering, but a major overhaul.
To read the new ProPublica report on uranium mining and water pollution in Wyoming, please go to: http://www.propublica.org/article/on-a-wyoming-ranch-feds-sacrifice-tomorrows-water-to-mine-uranium-today
To check out the trailer for the movie “Promised Land,” please watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHQt1NAkhIo
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