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Water for uranium: A Faustian bargain at Wyoming ranch?

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If the agency did what Wyoming wanted, it could destroy water that someday could be necessary and undermine its ability to protect aquifers in other places. If it rejected the plan, the agency risked political and legal backlash from state officials and the energy industry.

The EPA declined interview requests from ProPublica for this story and did not respond to a lengthy set of questions submitted in writing. After learning that ProPublica contacted several EPA employees directly involved in the debate over Christensen Ranch, the agency instructed staffers not to discuss the matter without agency approval.

For the last five years, as regulators have vacillated over what to do, John Christensen has experienced a similar ambivalence.

His property is speckled with thousands of small, mysterious black boxes. From each dark cube, a mixture of chemicals is pumped into the ground to dissolve the ore and separate out the uranium so that it can be sucked back out and refined for nuclear fuel.

Horses graze behind a gate on a dirt road that winds across this 35,000-acre tract, 50 miles south of Gillette. Nearby, a small metal sign is strung to a cattle guard with chicken wire: "Caution. Radioactive Material."

Christensen still places a tenuous trust in the system that promises to keep his water safe and leave his ranch clean. He relies on the royalty income and believes the national pursuit of energy is important enough to warrant a few compromises.

Yet if he had it to do over again, he's not sure he would lease out the rights to put a uranium mine on Christensen Ranch.

"It's probably worthwhile for this generation," he said. "You just don't know about future generations."

* * *

John Christensen's grandfather, Fred, first allowed uranium exploration on the family's ranch in the 1950s.

Fred Christensen had come to Wyoming from Michigan as a homesteader in 1906, finding work as a ranch hand and settling on a small tract at the base of the northernmost Pumpkin Butte. The Christensens farmed sheep, selling their meat and their wool, and used the proceeds to buy up more land. Through marriage and business, the family amassed some 70,000 acres, coming to rank among the largest private landowners in the United States.

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