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Native Sun News: Indian lawmakers push environmental bills

Filed Under: Environment | National | Politics
More on: energy, native sun news, oglala sioux, south dakota, uranium
   

The following story was written and reported by Brandon Ecoffey, Native Sun News Staff. All content © Native Sun News.

Lakota lawmakers lead statehouse in uranium mining, natural resource conservation bills
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

PIERRE – The Lakota Sioux delegation at the statehouse is sponsoring three of the four bills on uranium mining in the 2013 South Dakota Legislature. Rapid City Sen. Stan Adelstein is sponsoring the other one, which was marked up for a vote in the Senate Commerce and Energy Committee on Jan. 29, the deadline for introducing proposals.

Republican Sen. Jim Bradford of Pine Ridge Village is the main sponsor of the SB 148, SB 149, and SB 150 uranium mining bills. He represents District 27, which covers all of Shannon County, as well as parts of Pennington, Bennett, Haakon, and Jackson. The co-sponsors are Democratic Rep. Kevin Killer also of Pine Ridge Village, District 27; and Democratic Rep. Troy Heinert, enrolled member of the Sicanju Oyate from Mission, who is a new member of the House, representing District 26A, in Mellette and Todd counties.

SB 148 would return state regulatory authority over in-situ leach (ISL) uranium mining. This is the authority that lawmakers suspended in the 2011 legislative session with an amendment to South Dakota law that Powertech (USA), Inc. staff drafted.

Powertech submitted the proposal after twice failing to achieve approval from the state Department of Energy and Natural Resources for a deep underground injection well to dispose of waste water the corporation would draw from the aquifers at its planned Dewey-Burdock uranium mines and mills that would be located in the Black Hills counties of Custer and Fall River, adjacent to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The Lakota delegation voted on the side of citizens’ lobbies to keep home-rule in 2011 and to reinstate that local oversight in last year’s session when the issues arose again. However, the majority prevailed with an argument that state regulation would overlap federal jurisdiction.

The Rapid City-based Clean Water Alliance drafted SB 148 and the other uranium mining bills, which were introduced during the third week of the session. Rapid City, Hot Springs and other western South Dakota communities draw their drinking and livestock water from the Madison and Inyan Kara aquifers, which would be affected by the proposed mining and milling.

In lobbying for the bills on behalf of the 25-year-old statewide grassroots non-profit Dakota Rural Action, Sabrina King at the statehouse in Pierre said that “regular oversight” would not occur without state oversight.

“We want the state to regulate this type of dangerous mining, not just some distant federal officials,” she said. “And we want regular monitoring of the construction, operation, and water quality at ISL mines.”

The Fall River County Commission voted on Nov. 26 to intervene in state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) hearings to oppose Powertech’s project unless and until full-time, on-site monitoring is guaranteed.

Powertech (USA) Inc.’s Dewey-Burdock Project Manager Mark Hollenbeck, one of the company’s lobbyists at the statehouse over the last three years, told the Native Sun News that the company didn’t intend for the legislators to suspend state oversight when staff first presented the language to reduce duplication of regulatory efforts in the 2011 session.

He said the corporate team agrees that local oversight is preferable and had expected an outcome of the state applying to assume the responsibilities the federal government otherwise would have.

Many states assume federal responsibilities if they can demonstrate they have funding and capacity to do so. Such a move is under consideration in South Dakota now, but the cost is a concern.

URANIUM MINING BILLS PROPOSE SAFEGUARDS FOR WATER
Another move under consideration at the state level is to require a company to self-report its environmental violations within 24 hours of occurrence. This could be achieved through SB 149. Current law allows companies 30 days to report environmental violations without any penalty.

“We want companies who do this dangerous type of mining to be responsible for their spills and leaks,” King said. “We want problems to be reported quickly, so that corrective measures can be applied quickly.”

SB 150 would provide specific water protections. It would require uranium companies to return water to baseline conditions after they mine. It also would grant the Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources discretion to determine whether a particular location is feasibly safe to mine.

In addition, SB 150 would provide for the state’s denial of a mining permit if the proponent fails to demonstrate that water restoration will work at the site. Finally, it would require full restoration of water quality after mining.

“We want full protection from the problems that in situ leach uranium mining has caused in other places,” King said.

She acknowledged mining companies’ claims that they can mine safely and without contaminating groundwater. “This bill simply holds them to their word,” she said.

The related bill sponsored by Adelstein (R – District 32; Pennington), introduced as SB 141, would increase the bond requirements for mining companies and would apply to Powertech (USA), Inc.’s proposed mining and milling operation 12 miles north of Edgemont, which is the first ISL uranium project to face South Dakota.

SB 141 would require a mining company to post a bond -- before receiving a permit or beginning to mine -- worth twice the amount of the estimated cost of reclamation. King said the purpose of the bill is “to insure that the mine is cleaned up, especially if the company goes bankrupt or leaves the state. Current bonds are way too low,” she added.

The South Dakota Chapter of the Sierra Club supports the bill, which its lobbyist Edward Raventon qualifies as “a good mine reclamation bill with bipartisan sponsors.”

OIL, GAS BILLS ANTICIPATE SPILLS
Oil-and-gas regulation is also on legislators’ agenda this session, with the oil boom in neighboring North Dakota spilling its economic and environmental impacts across the state line.

HB 1004, passed unanimously by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Jan. 22, would provide for treble damages to be awarded in certain court cases between landowners and oil-and-gas companies.

“It's a sledge hammer landowners can use in the event some of the oil and gas’ bad actors leave a mess and skip,” Raventon said.

The bill was an outcome the state’s so-called “summer study,” conceived to level the playing field for landowners and motivate oil-and-gas companies avoid court actions over accidents by providing that a judge can award triple the amount a landowner originally asks in a damage suit.

American Petroleum Institute lobbyist Steve Willard convinced summer study participants to amend the bill to provide that the companies could get treble damages from landowners, too.

Arguing that the amendment “changed the entire intent of the bill,” King said, the South Dakota Stockgrowers, South Dakota Farmers Union, and Dakota Rural Action lobbyists testified at the committee hearing to the effect that legislators amended the bill to its original language, approving it unanimously.

Strongly backing the return of the original language were Republican Dist. 23 Rep. Charles Hoffman of Eureka, who is the committee chair; Republican Dist. 28B Rep. Betty Olson, of Butte, Harding and Perkins counties, who proposed the return; and Republican Dist. 29 Rep. Gary Cammack, of Butte, Meade and Pennington counties, who spoke in favor of the bill and called it “good legislation.”

Also addressing the oil boom, HB1005 received a unanimous “do-pass” vote in committee. It would require posting of certain information if hydraulic fracturing is employed in oil and gas wells. It would mandate fracking owner, operator or service companies to disclose the details of all chemicals involved in the federal FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry, which is otherwise a voluntary filing index.

HB 1007, a bill to eliminate perpetual conservation easements was defeated by a 7-6 vote in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. This was the third session in which a bill of this type has been defeated in the legislature. The previous two times were in 2010 and 2011 when it passed committee only to be defeated on the House floor.

Retired Assistant Wildlife Division Director George Vandel, who testified about the proposal, described HB 1007 as a "zombie bill" like the "Walking Dead" that keeps coming back over and over again.

“For conservationists, this bill is always a call to arms," Raventon said, because perpetual conservation easements preserve land, habitat and nature’s balance.

Citizens can examine all the bills by visiting the South Dakota Legislative Research Council Internet site at http://legis.state.sd.us/ and selecting "current legislative session", then "bills".

Legislators can be contacted through the same website by selecting "current legislators" then specific lawmakers to contact. Phone number and mailing addresses are located there.

(Contact Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health and Environment Editor at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

Copyright permission by Native Sun News www.nsweekly.com


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