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

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Podesta did not respond to multiple messages requesting a comment. A spokesman for Uranium Energy said the company would not respond to questions.

The EPA's then-acting director for the region that includes Texas maintains the Goliad exemption, which was issued last December, was carefully considered and based on science.

But Miguel Flores, who spearheaded the EPA's Goliad review until he retired at the end of 2011, said members of his team were dissatisfied with the agency's flip-flop, especially because critical modeling on the flow of contaminants still has not been done.

"We had worked long and hard on it," Flores said of the Goliad decision. "I think there was some level of disappointment."

The net result has left some area residents feeling abandoned.

"They gerrymandered the rules in order to get the aquifer exemption approved and gave the EPA an easy out," said Ginger Cook, who lives near the mine site in Goliad County and who is a plaintiff in lawsuits against the EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. "So much for protecting the groundwater."

* * *

The Goliad County case is the latest in a string of hotly contested challenges the EPA has faced in recent years as officials try to balance the drive to tap new sources of energy with the need to preserve water for future use in a changing climate.

As ProPublica reported in December, the agency has used a little-known provision in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act to issue more than 1,500 exemptions allowing energy and mining companies to pollute aquifers, including many in the driest parts of the country.

Sometimes, as in Goliad, the EPA has arrived at decisions that seem to run counter to the stated goals of the program, which is to issue exemptions only in cases where it can be proven beyond a doubt that the affected waters will never be used.

Sources within the EPA say the agency has been quietly reevaluating its policy on aquifer exemptions, in large part because evolving geological sciences have shifted the understanding of the risks, and advancing technology and climate change have made water sources once deemed inaccessible more likely to be needed -- and used -- in the future.

The way in which the Goliad exemption was approved raises new questions about how the EPA decides which resources to sacrifice, and whether its decision-making is subject to outside influence.

By the end of this year, Uranium Energy will begin injecting an oxygen-enriched solution between 90 and 450 feet below the earth's surface into four layers of the Evangeline Aquifer. The solution will dissolve more than 5 million pounds of uranium deposits, freeing them to be sucked back out and processed for nuclear fuel. In the process, uranium, radium and other contaminants will be left floating behind in the aquifer.

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