After a powerful lobbyist intervenes, EPA Reverses Stance on polluting Texas county's water
Published: March 20, 2013
The company initially submitted its plan, along with groundwater data to support its case, to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which approved it in 2010.
But only the EPA has the authority to exempt an aquifer from the protections in the Safe Drinking Water Act and federal regulators had problems with the Goliad project from the start.
Most aquifer exemptions approved by the EPA are in remote locations, but Goliad County residents draw water from at least 47 wells tapping the Evangeline Aquifer near the proposed Uranium Energy mine. Several wells were within a buffer zone set out around the pollution area.
Two geologic faults sliced through the site, potentially opening a pathway through which contaminants in one zone could transfer more easily to another, or move vertically back toward the surface.
Furthermore, groundwater experts say, the entire area is part of a recharge zone for the larger Gulf Coast Aquifer, which runs along the shoreline from Louisiana to Mexico. EPA scientists worried that the water would course through the ground, carrying contaminants from the mine zone toward Goliad residents' water wells.
"I and the staff were concerned," said Al Armendariz, who, as the former regional administrator, was Flores' boss and the highest level EPA official in the regional office covering Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico until he left the EPA last April.
In May 2012, William Honker -- who replaced Flores as the acting director of the EPA's local Water Quality Protection Division -- asked Texas environmental officials to require Uranium Energy to conduct what it calls multiphase modeling of the flow of groundwater at the site, which would yield new data on the direction that contaminants would travel underground.
In his letter to Texas regulators, Honker also described the data provided by the mining company as insufficient to predict how contaminants would spread from the site over the long term.
"EPA believes there is a high likelihood that, following mining activities, residual waste from mining activities will not remain in the exempted area," he wrote to Zak Covar, executive director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Mining companies try to confine contaminants by pressurizing the aquifer and forcing fluids to flow back towards the mine and away from populated areas. But records and interviews with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which does not directly oversee mining in Texas but licenses similar sites in other states, show that pollution commonly seeps beyond exemption boundaries at uranium mining sites.
Documents show that both Texas officials and Uranium Energy resisted doing the additional research the EPA asked for, maintaining that the evidence already presented to the agency proved that the contaminants would not affect nearby homes, and that water within the exempted area was not currently being used by residents.