Environmental groups challenge plans for uranium recovery facility

By Sarah Pridgeon

Concerns about the Ross Facility, Strata Energy Inc.’s proposed in-situ uranium recovery project, have prompted environmental groups to petition for a hearing with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB). A pre-hearing took place at the end of the year and the board is expected to announce its decision by the end of the month.

“This was an opportunity for our members to express their concerns and ask the Commission to pay attention to and integrate them,” says Shannon Anderson of Powder River Basin Resource Council (PRBRC). “We’re trying to intervene by providing information.”

PRBRC jointly petitioned to challenge the adequacy of certain aspects of Strata’s application with the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) on behalf of member Pam Viviano, a landowner from Hulett. “To be able to activate proceedings, we needed a member who would be directly impacted by the facility,” says Anderson. “This would give us representational standing – but we believe all our members will be impacted.”

“The pre-hearing was the very beginning stage, and it went well from our standpoint,” she continues, confirming that the board is expected to announce its findings from the pre-hearing “later this month.”

The affidavit submitted by Viviano contained eight assertions of injury-in-fact that could be caused to her property, which is located ten miles northeast of the site boundary and 14.8 miles from the proposed site of the central processing plant.

Viviano’s assertions include a potential threat to water resources at her property, caused by historic and unplugged drill holes, and a history of potential spills and leaks at past in-situ recovery projects that caused contamination of aquifers and aquifer depletion or drawdown, also based on the results of past projects.

The affidavit also included concerns about the alleged difficulty of groundwater restoration and stopping the “leaching” process at in-situ recovery facilities, as well as a potential decline in property values, an increase in traffic and the potential resulting fugitive dust impacts and light pollution.

Strata Energy contested the hearing on the basis that Viviano’s case does not satisfy the requirements for representational standing, arguing that many of the allegations, including of potential water threats, leaks and spills and aquifer depletion, offer “nothing more than bare assertions,” while that that the geology of the site does not lend itself to a credible, plausible pathway “through which contaminants could reach the Inyan Kara Group.”

Strata also claimed that PRBRC has not proffered an admissible contention, disputing claims that the original application fails to adequately address characterization of baseline groundwater quality and that it fails to properly analyze the potential impact of failing to complete groundwater restoration.

“We believe our attorneys presented a clear case,” says Melissa Butcher, PB Communications & Strategic Solutions. “It’s not a hindrance to the permit itself, but it could potentially affect the conditions on which our operations would be based. This is the public’s way of plugging into the process and we definitely accept that the public gets to have their say.”

Strata Energy Inc. filed its application to construct and operate the Ross uranium recovery facility on January 6 of 2011. An initial adequacy review was completed and docketed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on June 28 and an Air Quality Permit was granted by the Division of Air Quality of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality on September 28.

“We’ll be proceeding as if we’re going to move forward, we’re not in a holding pattern,” says Butcher. “This doesn’t stop the review of the permit application, we’ll just wait to hear back and, if there is a hearing, we’ll get into the actual contention.”

If a hearing is convened, according to pre-hearing chairman Judge Paul Bollwerk, the board may issue a notice indicating when and where members of the public will have opportunity to present oral statements “setting forth their views concerning any contested matters relative to the proposed Ross Facility.”

In the interim, members of the public are invited to submit a written limited appearance statement providing their views to the Office of the Secretary, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, D.C., 20555-001, attention Rulemakings and Adjudication Staff. Alternatively, email hearingdocket@nrc.gov.