Sole source designation could help guard against mining impacts
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — South Park residents concerned about impacts of uranium mining and other forms of energy development are seeking federal protection for their water supplies under a sole source aquifer designation from the EPA.
The designation would require more in-depth review of any proposed activities that could affect water supplies. Of special concern is uranium mining near Hartsel, as well as potential development of oil and gas resources. The designation could also result in buffers and other protective measures.
Gaining the EPA designation is a multi-step process beginning Sept. 11 with a meeting of the local environmental advisory board. Citizens will offer a petition requesting the South Park county commissioners to sponsor a formal request for the designation to regional, state and federal authorities. Get an overview of the regional sole source aquifer program at this EPA website.
To qualify, an aquifer must supply at least 50 percent of the drinking water consumed in the area overlying the aquifer. EPA guidelines also stipulate that these areas can have no alternative drinking water source that could physically, legally, and economically supply all those who depend upon the aquifer for drinking water.
As part of the petitioning process, South Park residents are also asking for an immediate moratorium on all mineral leasing activity until there are comprehensive studies on the relationship between ground water and mineral resource development.
There are currently no designated sole source aquifers in Colorado, but there are several in surrounding states, including Montana and Utah. For example, the Missoula Valley aquifer is protected because it provides 100 percent of Missoula’s drinking water. Information on regional sole source aquifers is online here.
Some states also have laws that provide special protection for sole source aquifers, as well as technical assistance and grants for ground water studies.
In general, the designation decision process takes a minimum of six months from the time that a petition is submitted to the EPA. It can take longer, based on the technical complexity of the petition.
Proposed projects that are funded entirely by state, local, or private concerns are not subject to EPA review. Examples of federally funded projects which have been reviewed by EPA under the SSA protection program include:
- highway improvements and new road construction
- public water supply wells and transmission lines
- wastewater treatment facilities
- construction projects that involve disposal of storm water
- agricultural projects that involve management of animal waste
- projects funded through Community Development Block Grants
For environmental advocate Richard Hamilton, it’s an issue of whether private property rights and rights established under mining laws trump protection of the public welfare.
According to Hamilton, there are clear legal precedents, reaching up to the U.S. Supreme Court, for establishing strong groundwater protection.
“The concern has always been, here in South Park regarding mineral leasing and mineral resource development, that comprehensive mineral deposit-groundwater relationships are unknown,” Hamilton said via email. ” No exhaustive, in-depth, examination of the groundwater and mineral development potential for impact has yet to be published that would allay public concerns of groundwater-mineral development relationships.
According to Hamilton, the question is whether the right to access mineral resource development by proprietary corporations is legally superior to the public’s rights to pristine waters.