|The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman,
Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor, All content © Native Sun News.
Rapid City Council supports OST’s fight to protect water
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor
RAPID CITY – Among the conservation issues to be raised at a free benefit concert for biodiversity Aug. 17 is one that occupied the city council’s attention earlier in the week: Protecting the water supply by preventing proposed uranium mining.
The non-profit local group Idea Wild announced the concert featuring Kory and the Fireflies, a nationally acclaimed pop-rock band that hales from South Dakota, as does Kenny Putnam, who will share the stage during the benefit beginning at 7 p.m. in Rapid City’s Downtown Square.
The Rapid City Council voted unanimously on Aug. 5 for a draft resolution stating: “We oppose the in-situ mining of uranium by Powertech in South Dakota, as the risk to our precious water is not acceptable.”
The council sent the resolution to a Legal and Finance Committee hearing for further discussion on Aug. 14. After committee input, a finalized proposal was expected to go back to the council for another vote.
Powertech (USA), Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Canadian penny-stock holding company Powertech Corp., has been seeking state and federal water and mining permits since 2009 for what could become South Dakota’s first-ever in-situ leach (ISL) uranium mining and yellow cake processing plants. It would be on 10,000 acres in the Dewey-Burdock Project area of Custer and Fall River counties adjacent to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The federal Atomic Safety and Licensing Board has admitted the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s contentions that the company’s water and geological analysis is inadequate to demonstrate groundwater will be safe in the mining process.
On July 22, the board also admitted the tribe’s contention that the company’s analysis of biodiversity impact is insufficient, in regard to the greater sage grouse, whooping crane and black-footed ferret.
After failing to achieve state approval for underground water injection permits, Powertech lobbied successfully in the 2011 Legislature to end state oversight of them, but permitting setbacks coincided with stock values dipping to their lowest level in history.
Then on Aug. 1, the company announced that a new Australian partner, Azarga Resources Limited, loaned it half-a-million dollars that could be repaid in the form of Powertech stocks, which would give Azarga a 22-percent share of the Canadian company.
Azarga, headquartered in Hong Kong, took over 17 percent of Powertech on July 29. Stock prices nearly doubled. The new partner is “the only significant” option for Asian investors to get into the uranium market, according to Powertech’s announcement.
“Azarga's thorough understanding of the uranium markets will provide support and added value to the company,” Powertech President and CEO Richard Clement said. “Their positioning in Asia will provide enhanced access and exposure to those markets."
The French water services giant GDF Suez currently claims another 18.6 percent of Powertech through its wholly owned subsidiaries Electrabel and Synatom, which supply nuclear energy in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg (Benelux). Pinetree Capital Ltd., an Ontario, Canada mining venture capital firm, is another top investor with 2 percent of Powertech’s shares and rights to a total of 10 percent, which it announced in May 2012.
“This is a foreign company that’s coming in and we’re risking depleting our natural resources for uranium that will go to yet another country,” Rapid City Alderwoman Bonny Peterson commented in supporting the council resolution. “It’s not going to be used in our own country, so there’s no patriotism involved.
“If they are given free water rights, they will then be free to sell to another company, another country, so it would trump any claim that Rapid City would have,” she added. “We know that we have droughts, so I envision a time that we might need to go bring in water from some other place or come up with some plan to increase water for our own citizens.”
The proposed Dewey-Burdock Project would mean building wells to inject solutions, dissolve uranium in the Inyan Kara aquifer, pump them to the surface, process them into yellow cake for storage and shipment, purify the water, spread most of it on the surface or return it underground, and dispose of toxic wastes off-site.
Powertech has applied to the state for water rights of 551 gallons per minute to be taken from the Madison Aquifer and for 8,500 gallons per minute from the Inyan Kara formation. That’s almost 13 million gallons per day, according to the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Rapid City used 11.35 million gallons per day in 2012, the municipal Water Division statistics show.
Rapid City, Ellsworth Air Force Base, and Hot Springs are among the western South Dakota communities that rely primarily on the Madison for municipal water. Many individual wells rely on the Inyan Kara.
Powertech has offered in writing to supply water to local residents should the mining damage their sources. It anticipates the bulk of the mine water could be re-injected into the aquifer or sprayed out on the surface, during the maximum 20-year lifespan of the project.
Council President Jerry Wright moved the resolution and Alderwoman Charity Doyle seconded it.
‘I’ve tried to find one case of it being done safely and I can’t,” Doyle said. “And they want the safety requirements waived. Well, if it’s safe why would you want the safety requirements waived?” she asked. “We need to stop being so desperate for any industry diversification that we would even consider this.”
Powertech has requested an exemption from the EPA Safe Drinking Water Act so the company would not have to return waste water to its original quality. This is standard operating procedure in ISL mining. Powertech spokesman Mark Hollenbeck told the Native Sun News most of the water in the mining area is already too contaminated to drink, anyway. He requested and received an audience with Mayor Sam Kooiker regarding the council resolution.
Alderman Brad Estes noted the negative impact the mining could have on tourism. “Having come from City Council in Wall in an economy that was fueled and billed on free ice water, I’m fully in favor of protecting our water,” he said. Wall, 55 miles east of Rapid City, attracts tourism with highway signs that say “free ice water.”
Alderman Ritchie Nordstrom concurred, “I’m going to support the motion that’s on the floor wholeheartedly.”
The vote followed testimony from several Rapid City residents and encouragement from Mayor Sam Kooiker, who, like Wright, had sent a letter to the DENR, requesting assurances that pollution, would not result from the proposed operation.
Dakota Rural Action Black Hills Chapter President Clay Uptain said grassroots membership of the 25-year-old statewide family farm organization has garnered more than 1,300 signatures on a petition calling on the state’s top tourism authority to oppose the mining prior to the water rights permit hearings in Rapid City the weeks of Oct. 7 and 28.
“We’re not opposed to economic development; we just want safe and healthy economic development,” Uptain said. “Contamination from uranium mining is forever, so we must protect our existing businesses and the appealing aspects of our wonderful city and surrounding area.”
Black Hills Chapter staffer Jillian Anawatty urged the council resolution, quoting engineering geologist Perry Rahn’s assessment of the proposed undertaking: “The ground water chemistry of this aquifer will have been disturbed. It’s like walking by a hornets nest: The hornets are in there and we just kicked the nest.”
Petition signatory Richard Draeger of Rapid City noted that Powertech has no mining experience and cautioned that NOAA’s Palmer Drought Severity Index indicates drier conditions loom. “We are going to obtain levels worse than the drought of the ‘30s and we’re talking about giving water to a Canadian company that is making money without paying U.S. taxes,” he said. “They’re draining a resource that belongs to the people of South Dakota and giving nothing back for it.”
Powertech’s mandatory filings with the Canadian government state that the company “obtained revised and much more favorable property tax incentives from the applicable tax authorities” just prior to picking up Pinetree’s support in April 2012.
South Dakota Peace and Justice board member Jim Peterson reminded councilors that the Black Hills already has two Superfund sites resulting from foreign mining operations that left multi-million-dollar cleanup to taxpayers. Both originate in Lawrence County at Whitewood Creek and the Gilt Edge Mine, then affect surface waters all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Citing the state’s withdrawal from supervision of underground injection wells in 2011, Peterson told the council: “We can’t rely on the state legislature. We have to rely on somebody to look after our interests so we’re turning to you.”
The Hot Springs City Council also has resolved to oppose the Powertech project. The Fall River County Commission voted to oppose it on Nov. 26, but later voted to reverse the position, claiming the matter was too complicated for commissioners to assess.
Cheryl Rowe of Rapid City implored the council to “do everything you can because we as citizens can’t really do that much and we expect and hope that you will take care of us and keep our water safe. We can live without uranium but we can’t live without good water,” she said.
“My job depends on tourism dollars,” Rowe added. “Uranium mining does pollute and I don’t think we can have both. I think we would lose the tourism dollars if we allow uranium mining to happen here in the wonderful, clean, beautiful place we live.”
Powertech’s proposal would provide 84 jobs.
Local physician Ken Vogele thanked the council for addressing the mining. “I think the issue is fairly simple, really,” he said. “First of all, we have too little water, because every other day you can’t water your lawn. So we are in a continuous conservation mode, which we should be in.”
The Water Division stipulates that outside watering only can be done on even-numbered days at even-numbered homes and odd-numbered days at odd-numbered homes during summer months.
“Secondly, there’s plenty of uranium in the world,” Vogele said. “The amount of uranium that Powertech will get from South Dakota is not even a drop in the bucket compared to the world supply.”
Rapid City resident Gena Parkhurst testified, “I am not opposed to mining of any sort if it can be proven harmless to our water supply. Yet with uranium mining, we need to keep in mind that the half-life of uranium is 4.5 billion years. None of us would outlive the contamination that would occur.”
Resident Rebecca Leas, a doctor in health education who attended the hearing, told the Native Sun News the issue would be addressed during the Idea Wild benefit concert.
Idea Wild has funded 2,500 projects in 82 countries to help conservationists, biologists and educators reduce biodiversity loss. Idea Wild’s Rapid City President and Founder Wally Van Sickle’s brother is the leader of Kory and the Fireflies.
(Contact Talli Nauman, NSN Health and Environment Editor at email@example.com)
Copyright permission by Native Sun News