After a Powerful Lobbyist Intervenes, EPA Reverses Stance on Polluting Texas County’s Water


When Uranium Energy Corp. sought permission to launch a large-scale mining project in Goliad County, Texas, it seemed as if the Environmental Protection Agency would stand in its way.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>Further, EPA scientists feared that radioactive contaminants would flow from the mining site into water wells used by nearby homes. Uranium Energy said the pollution would remain contained, but resisted doing the advanced scientific testing and modeling the government asked for to prove it.

It girl."

appealed directly to the EPA's second in command, Bob Perciasepe, pressing the agency's highest-level administrators to get directly involved and bring the agency's local staff in Texas back to the table to reconsider their position, according to emails obtained by ProPublica through the Freedom of Information Act.

a somewhat smaller area than was originally proposed.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>"Bob's involvement was literally a part of what he does on a weekly or daily basis," the spokesperson said. "Lobbyists, etcetera, get in touch, he meets with them, he points them in the right direction."

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>Still, documents leave little doubt that Podesta, described by Corporate Board Member magazine as the number one person "you need to know in Obama's Washington," kept the Goliad County issue alive when the EPA's scientific analysis seemed to doom it to failure.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>"We had worked long and hard on it," Flores said of the Goliad decision. "I think there was some level of disappointment."

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>"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."

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.

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.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>"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.

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.

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.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>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.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>With the support of Texas officials, the company also argued that the EPA had issued such exemptions in the past and was re-interpreting its own rules to thwart the Goliad exemption without justification.

a testy retort to Honker, Covar accused the EPA of being "swayed by the unsubstantiated allegations and fears" of Goliad County residents.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>"This is simple hydrology. They say 'Well, in our opinion that fault is confining,'" said Art Dohmann, president of the Goliad County Groundwater Conservation District, the local agency that establishes groundwater management plans under Texas' statewide Water Development Board. "Well, we all have opinions, the pump test will tell you the facts."

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>"We were prepared at that point to leave the issue right where it stood," said Sam Coleman, who temporarily took over Armendariz's job as the EPA's top regional official overseeing the permitting in Dallas, and is now the region's deputy administrator. "We could not approve the exemption."

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>Behind the scenes, however, Uranium Energy was pursuing another path to approval.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>She reached out to Perciasepe, asking him to meet with Uranium Energy's executives because the EPA officials in Texas "did not approve" the aquifer exemption, emails obtained by ProPublica under FOIA show.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>"We greatly appreciate your assistance to bring Region 6 and UEC to the table to work through these issues," Podesta wrote in early 2012.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>"Region 6 keeps changing the standards," she wrote in a Feb. 2, 2012 email.

Perciasepe replied, a day later.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>She wrote Perciasepe more than 25 times over an 11-month period, requesting meetings and phone calls, and at least once interrupting Perciasepe's weekend.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>Podesta often struck an informal tone, sending emails with subject lines such as "are we having fun yet?" and "rumors…sigh."

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>The EPA says such lobbying is routine — not only by energy companies, but by environmental groups — and that part of Perciasepe's job is to listen to all sides and facilitate a conversation. Even environmental advocates say they view this as a legitimate part of the rulemaking process.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>In mid-2012, EPA staffers in Texas were still resolved to deny Uranium Energy's permit. Honker and others pushed the company and state regulators for additional scientific study.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>By early summer the sides began to discuss a compromiseUranium Energy would provide some additional scientific data to the agency and it would shrink the size and depth of the part of the Evangeline Aquifer that it proposed to pollute, but it would not have to do the detailed analysis the EPA had wanted. The area exempted would be about 27 percent smaller, allowing a bigger buffer between the mine site and the homes drawing water from the aquifer.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>In July, Podesta wrote to Perciasepe that "the progress made over the last few weeks would not have been possible without all of the time and effort you and your office have put into this project."

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>When Goliad residents asked in August to attend a meeting between the EPA, Texas officials and Uranium Energy, Podesta wrote to Perciasepe that "we think it is odd to include the Groundwater District in the meeting."

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>"We could just tell that we were going through the motions, and that it had moved from a technical evaluation to a political decision," Dohmann said.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>In response to questions from ProPublica, Coleman sent a six-page document laying out how the scientific review process had quieted the EPA's original concerns.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>As one part of the review process, Uranium Energy conducted a so-called pump test to see if contaminants could migrate vertically between geologic layers or through the more than 1,000 old test wells that dotted the landscape.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>The document summarizing the EPA's review also cited Uranium Energy's data on the underground flow of contaminants, minus the "anomalous" data it had allowed the company to throw out.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>When sent a detailed list of additional questions to clarify the data and scientific basis for their decision, the EPA deferred to the Department of Justice, which declined to comment because of the pending litigation.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-style:italic”>On Dec. 4, the EPA issued the aquifer exemption to Uranium Energy. Days later, Podesta sent an appreciative email to Perciasepe.