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Native Sun News: Clash mounts over Black Hills uranium mine

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

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

Citizens dressed in yellow to protest the mining of uranium and milling of yellow cake at Hot Springs event Feb. 7 Photo courtesy Save the Black Hills

Clash mounts over proposed Black Hills uranium mining
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

Pierre – As people protested in the Black Hills on Feb. 7 against Powertech (USA), Inc.’s slated uranium mining in counties adjacent to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a South Dakota state legislative committee killed three bills designed to control the project.

Before voting, the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee heard testimony on SB 148, 149, and 150, which were sponsored and co-sponsored by lawmakers from Rosebud and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation legislative districts.

The bills were to return state regulatory authority over in-situ leach (ISL) uranium mining, require companies to report its environmental violations within 24 hours of occurrence, and mandate uranium miners to restore mine water to baseline conditions.

More than 20 people from Western South Dakota testified in favor of these controls. The committee members then voted unanimously to defer the proposals to the 41st day of the 40-day legislative session, effectively keeping the bills from a full Senate vote.

Sabrina King, lobbyist for the grassroots, non-profit Dakota Rural Action group of family farm advocates, said citizens “gave impassioned speeches to the committee, urging their protection of our water, land, and way of life.” However, she added, committee members “did not feel these particular bills were the right solution, as they are unwilling to do anything that would prevent uranium mining from happening altogether.”

On the same date as the vote, Mark Hollenbeck, lobbyist for Powertech (USA), Inc., promoted the Canadian company’s plans to conduct the state’s first ISL uranium mining and processing on public lands and private leases at the Dewey-Burdock site in the South Dakota’s southwestern counties of Custer and Fall River.

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.

It would provide 80 jobs in the construction phase, and a number of high tech positions in the expected 20-year lifespan of the project, according to Hollenbeck.

He addressed a meeting of the Southern Hills Economic Development Corp. in the Fall River County seat of Hot Springs, which attracted a group of picketers opposed to the plan. They dressed in yellow and carried yellow posters to protest Powertech’s slated on-site production of concentrated uranium, or yellow cake, as well as the potential for water table degradation in the process.

Slogans included:

• Clean water for future generations; no uranium mining
• Don’t pollute, deplete our water
• Water is like a daughter; we’ll do everything we can to protect her from abuse! Keep Powertech from our water!
• Welcome to the Black Hills, where Powertech gets richer and we all get sicker
• Daugaard’s the name but what he guards is a shame: the plunder for profit of Powertech’s ruinous uranium game
• From extraction that contaminates water and soil, to its deadly poisonous refinement, to the evil weapons built with it, to the deregulated industries behind power plants that endanger lives for profit: To hell with uranium

Earlier in the 2013 session, on Jan. 29, the Senate Commerce and Energy Committee voted unanimously to defer a related bill to the 41st day of the legislature.

Sponsored by Rapid City Sen. Stan Adelstein (R – District 32; Pennington), SB 141 would have increased the bond requirements for mining companies and would have applied to Powertech (USA), Inc.’s proposed mining and milling operation.

SB 141 would have required 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 was “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 vote came after people from the Black Hills communities of Hot Springs, Rapid City, Spearfish and Nemo testified in favor of the bill.

King said the bill’s rejection does not seem to reflect a lack of interest on the part of lawmakers: “Legislators see a need for this kind of discussion,” she told Native Sun News. “It’s clear that there are a lot of concerns and that people are not happy with the situation either with Powertech or with gold mining,” she added.

“Because of the overwhelming public response to the growing demand for mines, legislators have shown some concern in discussing the issues, so people need to contact them; there is potential for a summer study,” she said. “Just because this bill has died doesn’t mean it’s all over.”

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard is trying to allay the public’s worries, answering constituent correspondence with a defense of Powertech’s plans to prevent water and waste problems.

“People are concerned about the amount of water Powertech is proposing to use,” he notes in one of his letters to assuage a taxpayer. “Powertech’s first water right application requests up to 8,500 gallons per minute of water. The DENR’s proposed conditions will limit annual consumptive use to about 2 percent of the water, or about 170 gallons per minute, and that water will be disposed elsewhere. Ninety-eight percent of the water will be injected back into the Inyan Kara Aquifer.

“The second water right application requests 551 gallons of water per minute from the Madison Aquifer. Powertech has also included in its application its intention to make water from the Madison available for domestic and livestock use for landowners. If this happens, local landowners may benefit from better quality water made available to them through the project.”

Regarding waste, Daugaard notes, “Powertech’s primary disposal option is to inject the waste water into deep injection wells permitted by EPA. If Powertech does not have sufficient capacity in the disposal wells, the company proposes to dispose of some waste water in land application regulated by DENR …. Powertech would not be allowed to land apply waste water during periods of heavy precipitation or when the ground is frozen.”

DENR is the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The agency held a meeting in Rapid City on Feb. 8 to entertain interveners’ objections to consolidating two hearings expected on Powertech’s four permit applications to the state.

All interveners testified against consolidating the hearings, but the DENR’s Water Management Board determined it would consolidate them. The board is slated to set a date for the combined hearings when it meets at a regularly scheduled meeting in early March.

Powertech also requires federal permits from EPA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has been accepting public comments on a Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS) in preparation for a final determination on the project.

Commission staff has recommended approval of the DSEIS, based on the conclusion “that the overall benefits of the proposed action outweigh the environmental disadvantages and costs.” The agency’s target date for a federal licensing decision is June 2013, on the application filed in February 2009.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe submitted comments on Jan. 10, requesting a complete overhaul of the permit process for the proposed mining and milling.

South Dakota School of Mines and Technology Geology Professor Emeritus Perry H. Rahn notes that the water table is one of the most famous in the United States. Also known as the Dakota Aquifer, it underlies much of South Dakota, he relates in a Feb. 4 written evaluation of the available studies on the Inyan Kara Aquifer’s likelihood of transmitting mine contamination to water wells in the area.

“A major concern about ISL uranium mines is that no dissolved minerals or chemicals introduced into the ore zone will escape,” he notes in a paper written under contract. However, he concludes, “There are few published reports that quantitatively document the permeability of the Inyan Kara Group.” What’s more, he states, the DSEIS “has no ground water velocity determination.”

His paper infers that ground water moves through the Inyan Kara at the speed of about 66 feet per year. “At this relatively slow rate, offsite migration of contaminants from the proposed Dewey-Burdock ISL uranium mine would not appear to be a great concern to landowners who live miles away.

“Nevertheless, the groundwater chemistry of this aquifer will have been greatly disturbed. It’s like walking by a hornets’ nest. The hornets are in there. And we just kicked the nest,” he warned.

“In order to assess the possible impacts from the proposed Dewey-Burdock ISL uranium mine, some insight can be gleaned by studying operating mines,” he suggested.

In Jan. 24 sworn testimony to the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, Colorado hydrogeologist and geochemist Robert E. Moran found fault with the DSEIS for omitting an examination of such mines, noting among other things:

“The DSEIS fails to use reliable scientific investigation to assess or compare known impacts at populations of other operating and closed ISL sites.” As a result, he says, “This DSEIS fails to follow accepted approaches used in the wider scientific community.

“The DSEIS must realistically anticipate what will be the true long term uses of these waters---especially when many generations must be considered,” he notes. “Thus, truly conservative assumptions should be employed—which is not the case in this DSEIS,” he complains.

“The NRC has failed to require Powertech to provide statistically-adequate, reliable, preoperational baseline data, either within the Dewey-Burdock project area, or in surrounding regions,” he adds. “Without adequate baseline data, the presently-uncontaminated waters could become contaminated through ISL related activities, but the public would have no way of discovering this impact,” he warns.

(Talli Nauman is the Health and Environment Editor for NSN and she can be reached at

Copyright permission by Native Sun News

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