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After a powerful lobbyist intervenes, EPA Reverses Stance on polluting Texas county's water

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When Uranium Energy Corp. sought permission to launch a large-scale mining project in Goliad County, Texas, it seemed as if the Environmental Protection Agency would stand in its way.

To get the ore out of the ground, the company needed a permit to pollute a pristine supply of underground drinking water in an area already parched by drought.

Further, EPA scientists feared that radioactive contaminants would flow from the mining site into water wells used by nearby homes. Uranium Energy said the pollution would remain contained, but resisted doing the advanced scientific testing and modeling the government asked for to prove it.

The plan appeared to be dead on arrival until late 2011, when Uranium Energy hired Heather Podesta, a lobbyist and prolific Democratic fundraiser whose pull with the Obama administration prompted The Washington Post to name her the Capitol's latest "It girl."

Podesta -- the sister-in-law of John Podesta, who co-chaired President Obama's transition team -- appealed directly to the EPA's second in command, Bob Perciasepe, pressing the agency's highest-level administrators to get directly involved and bring the agency's local staff in Texas back to the table to reconsider their position, according to emails obtained by ProPublica through the Freedom of Information Act.

By the end of 2012, the EPA reversed its position in Goliad, approving an exemption allowing Uranium Energy to pollute the aquifer, though in a somewhat smaller area than was originally proposed.

An EPA spokesperson said companies routinely lobby the agency on regulatory issues and that Podesta's entreaties to Perciasepe, now the agency's acting administrator while Obama's nominee to head the EPA, Gina McCarthy, awaits confirmation, played no part in the agency's final decision.

"Bob's involvement was literally a part of what he does on a weekly or daily basis," the spokesperson said. "Lobbyists, etcetera, get in touch, he meets with them, he points them in the right direction."

Factors other than Podesta's efforts clearly weighed on the EPA as the Goliad case played out, including the agency's fraught relationship with Texas officials and the Obama administration's desire to demonstrate support for energy development.

Still, documents leave little doubt that Podesta, described by Corporate Board Member magazine as the number one person "you need to know in Obama's Washington," kept the Goliad County issue alive when the EPA's scientific analysis seemed to doom it to failure.

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