Wyoming environment officials issued the first permit exempting several deep groundwater aquifers on the ranch from environmental protection in 1988. It said the water was of relatively poor quality, and was too deep and too remote to be used for drinking. The permit did not address the possibility that usable aquifers could lie in even deeper rock layers beneath the site.
The EPA confirmed the state's exemptions and issued separate ones allowing the mine operator to contaminate the shallow layer of groundwater closest to the surface, where anyone who needed water – including John Christensen – was likely to go for it first.
Even as they gave their stamp of approval, EPA officials noted that the mine operator's application had not set precise boundaries for the depth or breadth of the exempted area. "The information contained in the submittal does not specifically delineate the area to be designated," the EPA's Denver chief administrator acknowledged in a letter to Wyoming regulators in August 1988.
Still, Christensen, who continued to run stock on his land, saw the pollution as an inconvenience, not a threat. He was assured that the mine operator could steer contaminants toward the center of the exemption zone by manipulating pressure underground. Monitoring wells surrounded the perimeter of the mining site like sentries, checking if pollutants were seeping past the border.
Drilling new water wells beyond the mine's boundary was expensive, but Christensen took comfort from rules obliging the mine operator to restore contaminated water within the exempted area to its original condition once mining was complete.
"That was our best quality water," Christensen said. "I've been given to believe that it is not sacrificed, that they will restore the groundwater quality."