CHEYENNE – In the latest step in an ongoing effort by the Trump Administration to boost the country’s uranium industry, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed an agreement Thursday at the state Capitol clarifying roles within two federal agencies in regulation of the mineral.
Wyoming leads the nation in uranium production, and in 2019, 55% of total employment in the U.S. uranium industry was in the Cowboy State. But domestic production of the mineral, which provides fuel to nuclear power plants, has shrunk substantially in recent decades. American uranium production recently reached a 70-year low after peaking in the 1980s.
The memorandum of understanding signed Thursday outlines some of the authorities of the EPA and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission in implementing regulations over in-situ uranium recovery, a main way to extract the mineral.
Wheeler, who was joined by Gov. Mark Gordon in an afternoon news conference, said the MOU “would help reestablish a strong, domestic uranium mining industry.”
“It also lays out a clear path of communication between the agencies for the simplest measures to avoid duplicative actions,” Wheeler said. “It is my hope that the U.S. never becomes as dependent on imported uranium as we are today, and that hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs related to uranium mining are created here in Wyoming.”
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, praised the signing, calling it “a major win for uranium production in Wyoming.”
“The Trump Administration is limiting unnecessary regulations and making it easier for American companies to do business,” Barrasso said in a statement. “Nuclear power is clean and reliable. It provides carbon-free energy and creates good-paying jobs.”
The senator first asked for an MOU between the agencies in 2017, partially in response to a proposed Obama-era rule that would have required uranium recovery operators to conduct up to 30 years of groundwater monitoring after production. The EPA withdrew the proposed rule in 2018.
While also cheered by groups such as the National Mining Association, the MOU signed Thursday was criticized by some conservationists. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a well-known environmental advocacy group, condemned the agreement, arguing the EPA was relinquishing its authority to protect water aquifers impacted by uranium mining.
“The EPA has the legal authority – and the duty – to ensure that the uranium industry restores aquifers after it’s done mining,” NRDC senior attorney Geoff Fettus said in a statement. “This action demonstrates that the EPA is more focused on protecting a polluting industry than it is on protecting people and our precious water supplies.”
During Thursday’s news conference, Wheeler and Gordon maintained the state-level health regulations from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality over in-situ mining would be unaffected by the new agreement.
“There’s nothing that we’re doing today in this MOU that will change or require any change in safeguards that we’ve put in place here,” Wheeler said.
In Wyoming, 146 people were employed in the uranium mining industry in 2019 – down from a 14-year peak of 531 in 2013. With the coal industry in long-term decline and oil and natural gas prices struggling amid the pandemic, Gordon acknowledged “the way forward is still a little bit unclear” for the state’s energy industries, but said uranium will have a role to play.
“It’s nice to see the Trump Administration recognize how important uranium is to our energy (and) our nation’s future,” Gordon said. “So I see this as yet another way to help the industry get back on its feet.”