Thank you for the opportunity to submit comments on EPA’s proposed revisions to its health and environmental protection standards for uranium and thorium mill tailings, including in 40 C.F.R. Part 192. These comments are submitted by organizations across the country that work on addressing the impacts of uranium mining and milling operations, including currently operating and proposed in-situ leach (ISL) uranium facilities. Our organizations’ members are concerned about the impacts to ground and surface water resources caused by ISL uranium facilities.
We appreciate EPA’s efforts in bringing this rule package forward, and we encourage the agency to promptly finalize its proposal for a set of new standards specific to ISL facilities. We encourage EPA to adopt robust and scientifically defensible standards that will protect the precious water resources of the Western U.S. As the agency charged with protecting the nation’s water resources, it is clearly within your authority to issue strong standards regulating ISL facilities to protect groundwater. In fact, the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act provides ample regulatory authority for strong EPA action.
EPA’s proposal has several items of keen interest to our organizations. We appreciate the inclusion of new requirements to characterize baseline water quality, the inclusion of new restoration goals for heavy metals, uranium, and other constituents of concern, and the requirement of long-term stability monitoring. All of these aspects of EPA’s proposal are very important given the problems and past history of impacts at ISL facilities in Wyoming, 2 Nebraska, and Texas. After decades of operations of these facilities, there is a track record of leaks, excursions, spills and failed restoration attempts. Based on this operational history, we know agencies like EPA must do more to protect water resources. We have attached articles and information related to the problems at ISL facilities demonstrating the need to address these problems. There is a strong basis for robust new requirements to protect water resources.
In particular, our organizations support EPA’s proposal for long-term stability monitoring. The costs of this monitoring program are reasonable given the risks to the ore zone and adjacent aquifers. If stability has not occurred, contamination from ISL facilities could spread to adjacent underground sources of drinking water.
However, EPA’s proposal falls short in several key ways. As detailed in the attached report from Dr. Richard Abitz, a geochemist with many years of experience reviewing and working on ISL uranium projects, the proposed regulations leave significant gaps in determining baseline water quality. Properly establishing baseline water quality – prior to operations – is critical to determining, assessing, and mitigating impacts to water resources from operations. It is also critical for establishing restoration targets after operations cease.
Additionally, our organizations remain concerned about the use of Alternative Concentration Limits (ACLs) for restoration goals. While EPA’s proposal strengthens restoration requirements, specifically with 13 constituents of concern, it leaves in place the option to forgo these restoration requirements the uranium company is having difficulty restoring the aquifer. We call on EPA to disallow ACLs, or at the very least to tighten the requirements and conditions of approval to limit the circumstances in which they apply. To date, no aquifer has been completely restored to baseline conditions at an ISL facility and the industry has relied upon ACLs as a means to stop restoration activities premature of aquifer clean-up. We believe ACLs should be the exception to the rule – not the exception that proves that rule.
Our organizations are also concerned that EPA’s proposal does not consider risks to surface and shallow underground water sources from spills at ISL facilities. As documented in the attached information, spills of injection and production fluids are shockingly common at ISL facilities and could be a major source of water contamination. We ask EPA to revise its proposal to account for and prevent impacts to water resources from spills.
EPA’s action to protect water resources will have direct health and safety benefits for families and communities impacted by uranium mining and milling activities. We have attached some information on the health risks associated with living near uranium operations, which provides strong justifications for EPA’s action.
Thank you for your time and consideration of these comments. We look forward to EPA finalizing this rule package in the near future. Please keep our organizations on your mailing list.