- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - A bill signed into law last week by Gov. Matt Mead is the first step in a lengthy process of the state taking over oversight responsibility of uranium mining in Wyoming.

Currently, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission oversees the state’s uranium industry.

The legislation passed by the Wyoming Legislature and signed by Mead would make Wyoming the fourth state to take over oversight duties from the NRC. Colorado, Texas and Utah have already made the move.

It sets aside $4.2 million to establish a permitting and compliance program.

State officials and industry representatives said they anticipate it will take four to six years for Wyoming to establish a program and receive NRC approval.

The action represents a victory for the state’s uranium industry, which has long criticized the federal permitting process as slow and inefficient. Industry representatives said a state-run program would eliminate duplication in the permitting process and expedite approval of new mines.

Those moves can be made without sacrificing the integrity of the government’s review process, they said.

What a Wyoming uranium program would look like remains to be seen. The funding set aside by the Legislature would help hire a program director and support staff to create an oversight program.

Environmentalists and industry critics said the program’s effectiveness will depend on the way the state writes the rules. Federal enforcement is already lagging, with regulators slow to respond to potential violations, said Shannon Anderson, a lawyer at the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a Sheridan landowners group.

“This legislation definitely cuts both way. It could be we see better enforcement with a better regulatory presence,” Anderson told the Casper Star-Tribune (http://bit.ly/1Gk0t6M). “The downside - and this is all dependent of what they do with the rule implementation - is the NRC generally has a more rigorous public process.”

Supporters of the move by the state note that a Wyoming program would have to be at least as stringent as its federal equivalent before the NRC granted the state oversight authority.

“NRC wants to be comfortable with who you have running the program before giving the keys to the car,” said Jonathan Downing, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association.

The sector has encountered environmental problems in the past. A 2008 state investigation found repeated spills at Cameco’s Smith Ranch-Highland complex in Converse County. It also criticized the company for lengthy delays in its groundwater restoration efforts and insufficient bonding to cover the company’s reclamation costs.

The company ultimately paid a $1.4 million fine, doubled the size of its bonds and agreed to an accelerated reclamation program.

Wyoming accounted for two-thirds of the United States’ uranium production in 2014, according to preliminary federal and state figures, producing around 3.3 million tons of the 4.9 million tons mined nationally.

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Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com

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