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Native Sun News: State approves mining project in Black Hills

Filed Under: Environment | National
More on: black hills, mining, native sun news, south dakota

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

State approves Paha Sapa gold exploration without Native consent
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

LEAD — The South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) announced Dec. 5 that it has approved Valentine Mining Co.’s application to explore for gold and associated minerals in and around the controversial Deadwood Standard Project area near Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway in the Northern Black Hills, or Paha Sapa.

“If information from the exploration activities shows economically feasible ore reserves are present, the company may complete an application for a large-scale mine permit, which is then subject to public notice, intervention and a contested case hearing before the DENR Board of Minerals and Environment,” the agency stated.

Exploration can now begin on the approximately 400-acre plot in Lawrence County. It will be in an area about six miles west of Lead near the old mining camp of Savoy and another 20th century claim area approximately one mile northeast near Ragged Top Mountain. Soaring gold prices have made the old claims attractive to modern miners.

The exploration activities will make use of existing trails and require construction of up to 2.1 miles of new trails, as well as the drilling of up to 100 test holes as deep as 100 feet, and trenching for surface samples. Blasting may be required in some areas to facilitate trenching, the state noted.

The Lawrence County Commission voted at its Aug. 21 regular meeting to delay a decision on granting the company a conditional use permit for a large-scale mine, after Defenders of the Black Hills spokesperson Charmaine White Face testified that the proposal fails to address Native American sacred site protection.

The mining company’s Lawrence County Conditional Use Permit Application makes no reference to the sacred status of the Black Hills in the Lakota culture and states: “A cultural resource survey was conducted on approximately 370 acres in the Ragged Top Project area. The survey was performed by Plano Archeological Consultants. The survey revealed the presence of six historic sites, the majority of which were related to previous mining activities. With the exception of a single jasper flake …, prehistoric evidence was lacking. No impact to cultural resources in the Ragged Top area should therefore result from project activities.”

The commissioners’ action was reflected in meeting minutes as “to not make a decision on the Deadwood Standard Project Conditional Use Permit No. 411 until they have a report and recommendation from the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources.”

Among environmental activists vying against the project at the commissioners’ meeting were Audubon Society spokesperson Nancy Hilding and members of the Spearfish Canyon Owners Association.

“Spearfish Canyon is a national treasure and vital to the local tourist economy,” said Bonnie Gestring in a letter on behalf of the national environmental organization Earthworks asking for commissioners to deny the application.

“The proposed project is located, in part, on lands designated as Special, Exceptional, Unique or Critical, and therefore mining cannot occur on these lands without a change in designation by the State Board of Minerals and the Environment or a determination that impacts can be satisfactorily mitigated,” she argued.

However, another organization called the Spearfish Canyon Society, represented at the meeting by Jerry Boyer, is in favor of the development because the company plans to donate the 408-acre proposed mine site to the public when it’s through with the mining in 10 years.

Valentine, or VMC LLC, a South Dakota limited liability corporation, has posted a $20,000 reclamation bond for the exploration project, which is the maximum required by statute.

If the mining proceeds, the company promises, “All of the processing and most of the excavation will be done far from (Spearfish) Canyon.” One deposit is within 500 feet of the rim, it says, “but extra care will be taken to make sure the work is not visible from Spearfish Canyon and that we don’t have any impact on the canyon itself. In fact, you won’t be able to see the Deadwood Standard Project from either Terry Peak or from Spearfish Canyon,” company publicity says. Excavation would be “small in scope” throughout the life of the mine, according to VMC.

About 75 percent of the gold-bearing ore is within 35 feet of the surface, and the average depth is only 23 feet, it notes. The ore would be mined using a quarrying process similar to that used at gravel pits, then crushed to a quarter-inch or less, and processed on site in covered concrete vats. The spent ore would be cleansed of chemicals and returned to the ground, according to plans.

“This type of reclaim-as-you-go mining will result in a very small footprint - roughly 20 to 25 acres will be mined at any one time,” VMC says. “Excavation areas will be backfilled to approximate original topography, and native vegetation will be reestablished. Tree spades will be used to move trees from the excavation areas to the newly reclaimed land, giving the reforestation process a head start.”

The Deadwood Standard name is derived from the Deadwood Standard Mining and Milling Co., organized in 1901. The company built a 200-ton cyanide plant on this site, processing ore on and off from 1902 to 1917. Old mine shafts, drifts, adits and trenches can be found on the property, the result of mining activity from 1896 to 1916. “We’re going to clean all of that up,” VMC promises.

Modern processing chemicals and acid rock drainage have created water pollution problems at other gold mines in the Black Hills, resulting in at least two Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites near Lead. VMC addresses this danger, stating, “Rock that contains sulfide materials such as pyrite can produce acid rock drainage. However, the Deadwood Standard Project rock does not contain pyrite, and has no potential to generate acid rock drainage. In addition, the rock is made up almost exclusively of limestone. By its nature, limestone is a neutralizer of acidity.”

The company promises that “all project activities will be conducted in accordance with the federal Clean Water Act, stringent state environmental regulations and modern practices for mining environmental management.”

Under state mining law, no procedure for public intervention or hearings is necessary in the current mineral exploration permit process. “It allows mining companies to explore new areas for ore bodies, check the continuity of known ore bodies and rule out areas for potential expansion,” the state says.

(Contact Talli Nauman at

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