The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.
OST Attorney Jeffrey C. Parsons
Opponents of uranium mining project held a public information meeting Jan. 10 in Hot Springs. Photo by Talli Nauman
Uranium mining permit process questioned by OST
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor
HOT SPRINGS — Alleging multiple violations of federal environmental law, the Oglala Sioux Tribe on Jan. 10 requested a complete overhaul of the permit process for the proposed Dewey-Burdock uranium mine and mill adjacent to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Custer and Fall River counties, South Dakota.
The tribe’s demand is contained in a 22-page comment paper submitted on the occasion of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s deadline for public comment about the agency’s preliminary recommendation to approve a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS) for the project.
“Instead of following the process required by the National Environmental Protection Act, the DSEIS has been prepared in a manner where outstanding issues are being unlawfully shielded from scrutiny of the public and other agencies,” the Oglala Sioux Tribe stated in writing. “These NEPA deficiencies must be remedied by reissuing a scoping notice that identifies these issues, and presents them for review by the tribe, the public and other agencies … at the earliest possible time,” it concluded.
The comment submittal coincided with lobbying in the South Dakota Legislature at the state capitol in Pierre by project proponent Powertech (USA) Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Canadian holding company Powertech Uranium Corp., and also with a turnout of about 130 people for a public information meeting in the Fall River County seat of Hot Springs, organized by project opponents.
“We don’t have to be scientists to know that uranium is deadly. It is,” said meeting participant Debra White Plume, founder of the Pine Ridge-based non-profit Owe Aku (Take Back the Way), which is an intervener in the federal licensing process. Powertech is coming here to drill thousands of holes through our aquifers,” she warned.
In fact, the DSEIS indicates that “The applicant estimated 100 production wells and 194 injection wells would be installed at the initial well fields during the construction phase of the proposed project”, plus an unspecified number of spill-monitor wells at 4-acre intervals around the perimeter of the project, and a maximum of eight deep injection wells for wastewater disposal. Thousands of drill holes already exist from previous uranium mining and exploration at the site.
Powertech initiated its NRC application on Feb. 25, 2009, and controversy is mounting as the agency’s June 2013 target date nears on a federal licensing decision about the company’s proposal to undertake the first in-situ leach (ISL) uranium mining and milling in South Dakota.
The NRC staff recommendation to approve the draft statement is based on the conclusion “that the overall benefits of the proposed action outweigh the environmental disadvantages and costs.”
The project entails extracting groundwater, forcing it back into the aquifer with oxygen and carbon dioxide to dissolve and release uranium from rock, pumping the mineral water to the surface, refining the mineral, shipping the product to nuclear power producers, disposing of the waste and effluent, cleaning up the site, and monitoring for environmental compliance.
“Oxygen and carbon dioxide are the only things we’re going to inject,” said Project Manager Mark Hollenbeck, who had an audience with the South Dakota House of Representatives Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Jan. 10.
“What we do is we go down and drill into that formation. It’s loaded with water; we bring the water to the surface, add oxygen to it and re-inject it. The oxygen will dissolve the rock and the uranium will come up in the water, and we strip it off in basically a giant water softener,” he told the Native Sun News.
If permitted, the project would take place over an estimated period of 20 years at a location 13 miles northwest of the town of Edgemont, in an area of about 10,580 acres owned largely by private parties and partly by the public through the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The area was first mined for uranium in the 1950s and has been explored further since then.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe cites a litany of alleged law breaking in the NRC’s decision to grant a preliminary recommendation, to wit:
The Draft Environmental Impact Statement relies on a Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) the NRC developed to help assess all proposals for in-situ leach uranium mining and milling that might arise in Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, and New Mexico. The generic statement has received final authorization, however, the tribe argues that the agency’s failure to respond to “substantial critical public comments” about it when addressing the supplemental document constitute a violation.
“Reliance on the GEIS is not warranted because the GEIS itself did not comply with the National Environmental Protection Act, both in process and in substance,” the tribe said in the document prepared by its attorneys Jeffrey C. Parsons, Travis Stills, and C. Wendy Gillis.
The NRC staff’s preliminary recommendations to approve the draft “have unlawfully preceded the final environmental impact statement,” it added.
“Although it may have been proper to include a draft license as the “preferred alternative” to be compared across a range of alternatives, the DSEIS did not take that approach,” the tribe went on to allege.
The agency has issued several recommendations in favor of license issuance and at least two draft licenses prior to conclusion of the DSEIS process. When the Tribe requested more time to provide comments on the licensing, the request was denied, it noted.
Some of the draft’s references to scientific data are too vague and some of the data is too inaccessible to be legally valid, the tribe argued.
“Release of a new draft license within just days of the close of comment, without providing any notice, let alone public distribution of the new draft license document itself, does not provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to review and comment,” it specified.
Nor does the DSEIS “consider all reasonable alternatives”, as directed by NEPA, according to the tribe.
It charges the NRC with failure to require Powertech to provide necessary baseline data about conditions at the proposed site, noting, “The DSEIS admits that the applicant has failed to acquire necessary information related to groundwater at the site …, that substantial water quality data collection and aquifer pump tests will only be conducted after license issuance…, that the NRC staff has yet to even require the company to design proposals for non-production monitoring wells to detect leaks of toxic materials above and below the target ore bodies.
“Such an ‘approve first – plan later’ tactic renders it impossible to assess or analyze the potential impacts associated with the proposed mining operation,” it states.
“Of particular note concerning the lack of meaningful baseline data are the thousands of historic drill and bore holes within the project area,” it adds. “The DSEIS admits that these bore holes exist and could cause serious environmental impacts by providing a pathway for spread of contamination in the groundwater.”
It continues, “Even if deferral of necessary data collection was allowable, there in fact is evidence that the historic drill holes provide a conduit for ground water migration. The DSEIS states that in the southwest corner of the Burdock area there is ‘groundwater … discharging to the ground surface from the Fall River Aquifer and Chilson Member of the Lakota Formation through improperly plugged exploratory boreholes.’
“This information necessitates a more detailed review of the issue of historic wells or bore holes – and requires that any feasible pump tests or other analysis be performed as part of the NEPA process, with necessary opportunities for public and agency review and comment, in order to assess the potential impacts of the project.”
Additionally, the tribe notes, the draft identifies areas where the water is not confined in the Fall River Aquifer proposed to be mined. “Instead of requiring the collection of the data necessary to determine the potential impacts of mining in this unconfined aquifer, NRC suggests that ‘applicant has committed, as part of the license condition, to conduct additional hydrogeological investigations…,” said the tribe.
It charges that the NRC document fails to adequately analyze mitigation measures. NEPA defines mitigation as a way to avoid, minimize, rectify, or compensate for the impact of a potentially harmful action. “Unfortunately, the proposed mitigation consists overwhelmingly of a list of plans to be developed later, outside the NEPA process,” it said.
“Historic evidence demonstrates that ISL uranium mines have a very poor record of restoring ground water aquifers. In fact, none have ever actually restored an aquifer,” according to the tribe’s submittal.
“Indeed, as recently described by the U.S. Geological Survey, ‘to date, no remediation of an ISR operation in the U.S. has successfully returned the aquifer to baseline conditions. Often at the end of monitoring, contaminants continue to increase…,” the tribe noted. ISR is the acronym for in-situ recovery, which is the same as in-situ leaching or ISL.
“While the DSEIS presents some general methods for restoration of the groundwater following mining operations, it does not provide detail as to how this proponent expects to succeed where all others have failed. A detailed evaluation of the effectiveness of any proposed mitigation measure is required by NEPA,” the tribe insists.
The cumulative impacts of the mining are not adequately addressed. Analysis should be conducted on “not only past uranium mining in the region, including the abandoned and unreclaimed uranium mines within the project area, but also present and foreseeable uranium development,” it said.
The nerve gas stored underground at the nearby Black Hills Army Ordnance unmitigated Superfund toxic waste site should be considered in the analysis of cumulative environmental impacts, the tribe added.
The project, as described, does not comply with the 1872 Mining Act, it said, explaining, “Powertech proposes to use lode mining claims for purposes entirely unrelated to the extraction of valuable minerals, despite the requirement that all lode mining claims contain valuable mineral deposits.”
“A proper application of BLM’s multiple use, public interest, and sustained yield mandates to those areas not covered by valid claims would result in a very different project review, alternatives, and level of protection for public land resources and values, as well as reducing or eliminating the adverse impacts to the use of these lands by members of the public and commenters,” the tribe sustained.
The DSEIS “fails to adequately address impacts to cultural resources or comply with the National Historic Preservation Act,” it claims, adding, “NRC appears poised to forgo any draft analysis of the cultural resources impacts. NRC staff states that it is continuing to consult with certain tribes. However, some of this consultation has not been as productive as anticipated by the tribes, including the Oglala Sioux Tribe with respect to historical and cultural survey.”
It noted that “significant historical and cultural impacts are anticipated for small impacts to the local economy.”
In making its recommendation NRC staff improperly relied on state and other federal agencies to justify deferral of analysis of impacts, according to the tribe.
The NRC’s analysis also fails to account for all waste water disposals, it added. “The DSEIS states, without any support, that Powertech will recover 70 percent of the treated water” during the reverse osmosis process applied to underground injection disposal, the tribe observed. “However, according to government estimates, reverse osmosis can result in a loss of upwards to 95 percent of the liquid, which would be left in the waste, leaving a more significant waste stream than analyzed in the DSEIS.”
Powertech also might spray waste water on the surface, prompting the tribe to respond, “With respect to the proposed land application disposal, the DSEIS does not detail the water quality expected from the operation, nor detail any anticipated effectiveness of the proposed water treatment proposals.”
It said the draft fails to account for impacts on wildlife from disposal of waste water on the surface, ignoring Endangered Species Act requirements and other stipulations applicable for protecting the greater sage grouse, whooping crane and black-footed ferret.
“The anticipated type and amount of radioactive solid wastes on site are not identified in the DSEIS beyond a generic reference,” the tribe also complained. Similarly, analysis is lacking regarding destinations for transferring the waste off-site, since securing contracts, site licensing, and potential environmental justice abuses remain to be considered, the tribe contended.
It criticizes the analysis for lacking “current and confirmed information on air emissions and their impacts on various receptors in the region. Although not identified or analyzed in the DSEIS, these receptors include people, plants, animals, water bodies, soil, National Parks, etc.
“The DSEIS does not analyze the impacts of radioactive and non-radioactive particulate emissions [and] makes no mention of the foreseeable impact of major wind storm events, including tornadoes, on the facility or the dispersion of emissions from the facility,” the tribe adds.
As with any project proposal, its operations should be address in relation to the context of global warming, and, “The DSEIS should be reissued with a clearly articulated project lifetime and a cumulative impacts analysis,” the criticism concludes.
(Contact Talli Nauman, NSN Health and Environment Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org)