11/06/2017 - Regulatory Tracker

Uranium Extraction Water Quality Standards

by EELP Staff

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Why it Matters

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last updated the health and environmental standards for uranium mining in 1995. Since then, the primary method for extracting uranium has changed to in-situ recovery (ISR): pumping a solution into a deposit to dissolve the uranium, which is then collected when the fluid is pumped back out. This can contaminate groundwater if water containing uranium extraction byproducts flows into nearby aquifers. The proposed new rule updates uranium mining regulations by adding a section tailored to ISR, designed to protect groundwater adjacent to production zones.

Current Status

In 2017, the Obama EPA proposed a new rule requiring mine operators to monitor groundwater before, during, and after uranium extraction. EPA withdrew the proposal on October 30, 2018. On July 23, 2020, EPA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission agreed to delegate most regulation of groundwater pollution from mining operations to states.

History

Jan. 26, 2015 EPA publishes the proposed rule, “Health and Environmental Protection Standards for Uranium and Thorium Mill Tailings.” The rule would require mine operators to monitor groundwater before, during, and after uranium extraction to aid in preventing and mitigating contamination. This rule proposes 30 years of post-production monitoring and requires that operators take corrective action within 90 days of contamination. A comment period closes April 27, 2015.

April 24, 2015 EPA extends the comment period to May 25, 2015.

Jan. 19, 2017 EPA publishes a new proposed rule based on comments received about the January 2015 proposal. Among other changes, the new rule decreases the post-ISR groundwater monitoring requirement to six years after operations stop, reduces the number of contaminants that must be tested for, and increases the time allowed for cleaning up contamination. The comment period for this rule ends July 18, 2017.

Trump Era

July 18, 2017 The comment period closes.

Aug. 2, 2017 EPA reopens the comment period until Oct. 16, 2017.

Oct. 30, 2018 EPA withdraws the proposed rule affecting health and environmental standards for uranium mill tailings entirely. In its withdrawal, EPA questions whether the proposal is within its authority and states it “no longer believes that a national rulemaking to promulgate standards is necessary at this time.” EPA also points to “market circumstances” that make the standards less of a priority and expressed concerns about its own authority to issue the regulations as proposed.

Jan. 31, 2019 The Nuclear Regulatory Commission issues a request for comment on whether it should restart the process of promulgating its own ISR regulations now that EPA has withdrawn its proposal. It had put a previous effort to develop regulations on hold pending EPA’s proposal.

July 23, 2020 EPA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for establishing and implementing water quality standards for in-situ recovery. The MOU limits the types of standards EPA can set and prevents EPA from developing specific compliance mechanisms. The result is that states will be primarily responsible for regulating groundwater pollution from mining operations because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission delegates oversight of uranium mining to most states.