Lawyer: Aquifer decision by EPA ‘a huge victory’
BY SARA SNEATH
In a move that experts say could set a national precedent, the Environmental Protection Agency is withdrawing part of its approval of a safe drinking water act exemption for uranium mining in Goliad County.
An EPA official said there is not enough data to determine whether a previously approved area is serving as a current source of drinking water.
“I think this is a huge victory for the citizens of Goliad County,” said Jim Blackburn, the Houston-based environmental lawyer representing Goliad residents. “Mining activities will be allowed to occur, but at least one of the most troubling aspects, which is mining across the Northwest Fault, will not occur. We’re not quite sure how the groundwater flows up there. So, I feel like it’s a very positive result.”
At issue is an aquifer exemption submitted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that would allow Uranium Energy Corp. to use a water solution fortified with gaseous oxygen to dissolve uranium ore underground and then pump the uranium-bearing mixture back to the surface. For the exemption to be approved, the state’s environmental agency had to prove to the EPA that residual waste from mining activities would not flow to current drinking water sources.
In December 2012, the EPA approved the exemption.
But Goliad County residents with water wells near the approved site took the EPA to federal court under the belief that Uranium Energy Corp. and the state’s environmental agency needed to do more testing of the water flow in the Goliad aquifer to prove residual waste would remain in the exempted area.
In response, the Uranium Energy Corp. began a 60-day review process, which the agency extended once and was later delayed by a UEC request for more time to meet the new standards.
“We have given this a more thorough technical review than any other historically,” Bill Honker, EPA Region 6 director of water quality protection division, said about the Goliad aquifer exemption.
The EPA’s decision to decrease the approved area reflects the findings of Lawrence Dunbar, of Sugar Land, a water resources and environmental engineer who submitted findings during the public commenting period of the agency’s review process.
Dunbar said he found that Uranium Energy Corp. and the state environmental agency did not provide adequate water flow modeling to prove that residual waste from mining activities would not flow north of the Northwest Fault.
“We basically agreed with that comment in the revised decision,” Honker said.
The EPA has approved more than 30 aquifer exemptions in Texas, primarily for uranium mining, Jennah Durant, EPA Region 6 spokeswoman, wrote in an email Wednesday.
The agency’s office of groundwater and drinking water is reviewing the almost 30-year-old national aquifer exemption policy because of changes in water availability and use, water treatment technology advances and population shifts to make sure the policy and approach are still relevant and helpful to EPA staff reviewing aquifer exemption requests, Durant said.
“We are always learning how to do things better. We have learned quite a bit on how to do things better in this situation,” Honker said.
Tuesday, the Uranium Energy Corp., which has long occupied an office within a block of the Goliad groundwater district, closed down its Goliad office space.
“We are studying the decision and will be making a statement on Thursday,” Uranium Energy Corp. spokesman Matt Welch wrote in an email Wednesday.
“I don’t think either side really understands what the EPA means at this point,” Goliad groundwater district president Raulie Irwin said. “Until we know exactly what that modification means, I don’t think that we have a definite comment on it.”
Blackburn and Goliad petitioners will review the EPA’s decision further before deciding whether to drop the federal lawsuit, he said.
“By no means is it the end of anything. But it was a very positive result. It basically justifies the filing of the federal lawsuit,” Blackburn said. “This whole process has been one of fighting an uphill battle. We still remain concerned about the impacts.”
The EPA’s decision indicates the agency is listening to Goliad petitioner’s concerns about their water, he said.
“I think this has all been very historic at the EPA level, and I tend to think that it will set a precedent,” said Blackburn, who has been an environmental lawyer for about 40 years. “Frankly, it feels good.”