An energy company has agreed to pay a $5,000 state penalty for two spills of uranium solution from pipelines at a new Wyoming mine. Over 20,000 gallons spilled July 17 at the Nichols Ranch in-situ uranium mine in Powder River Basin between Casper and Gillette. In-situ uranium mining involves pumping chemicals underground to release uranium into a solution that is pumped to the surface. No shafts or tunnels are dug underground.
The other spill of 12,000 gallons occurred September 8, according to the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. The department issued a violation notice against Casper-based Uranerz Energy Corp. on October 7. Department Director Todd Parfitt and Uranerz Vice President Michael Thomas signed the penalty agreement on November 3. Thomas didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Nichols Ranch facility in a remote area of rolling hills and draws near the Johnson-Campbell county line began producing in April and shipped its first yellowcake uranium in September. The form of uranium requires further processing before it can generate nuclear energy. The spills occurred from pipelines buried about six feet deep that carried the uranium solution to an on-site processing facility, according to Mark Rogaczewski, a supervisor for the department's Land Quality Division. Most of the spilled solution seeped into the ground but about 3,500 gallons on July 17 and 5,000 gallons on September 8 reached the surface and flowed about 1,000 feet over the private property.
It was unclear how the spills occurred. "It was possibly a fitting or the pipe broke," Rogaczewski said. The company isn't required to clean up every spill, he said, but it must ensure the site isn't contaminated with too much radioactivity after production ceases. Company officials self-reported the spills to the department and Nuclear Regulatory Commission as required, Rogaczewski said.
Wyoming ranks as the top state for proven reserves of uranium. The state was responsible for 54 percent of the five million pounds of yellowcake produced nationwide last year, according to the Wyoming Geological Survey.