|The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.
In Pierre: Powertech lobbyist Mark Hollenbeck literally takes a seat in the South Dakota legislature while talking with members of the House of Representatives. COURTESY/Sabrina King
Oglala Sioux Tribe takes feds to task for snubbing sacred sites in uranium mining endorsement
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor
WASHINGTON. — The Oglala Sioux Tribe is taking legal action against the U.S. government for recommending approval of foreign uranium mining operations upstream from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation before completing mandatory analysis of sacred sites on ancestral lands.
“The strategy seems to be ‘approve now, analyze later’,” the tribe’s attorney, Jeffrey Parsons, told the Native Sun News. “We think that’s bad science, and we think it’s illegal,” he said in a Jan. 31 interview.
One day earlier, on Jan. 30, The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff announced its final supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) recommending approval of Powertech Uranium Corp.’s proposed Dewey-Burdock in-situ leach mining and milling project on 10,000 acres in Custer and Fall River counties adjacent to the South Dakota reservation.
“The report concludes there are no environmental impacts that would preclude licensing the facility,” the NRC staff said in an announcement from Washington, D.C.
However, in order to make the announcement, the agency separated the required review of the project’s impacts on historic and cultural resources, providing the public an additional two weeks to comment on sacred sites before a Feb. 14 deadline.
Staff noted that a license cannot be issued until the cultural resources process is completed, due to the National Historic Preservation Act.
In light of the recommendation, the Oglala Sioux Tribe is filing arguments this month against the separation and other conclusions of the SEIS, according to Parsons, the tribe’s attorney in the four-year-old contested administrative case hearings before the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.
“They’ve used this bifurcated tactic as a way to evade their duties under the National Environmental Protection Act,” Parsons said.
The act requires that the cultural analysis be included in the draft impact report, but it was not, he said.
“My suspicion is that the company has pressed NRC to go forward with this despite the lack of adequate study,” he said.
COMPANY LOOKING FORWARD TO PERMITS
Powertech representative Richard Clement said the agency recommendation for an operating license is based on “detailed” analysis.
“This milestone is the culmination of over four years of technical and environmental review by the agency with the greatest expertise in uranium recovery facilities,” Clement said in a written statement.
“The depth and extent of the review provides a resounding confirmation on the benefits and limited environmental impact of the project,” he said.
“This should also facilitate other final approvals from EPA and the State of South Dakota so that we can begin the hiring process and develop the project," he added.
The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board is expected to hold hearings in summer 2014 in western South Dakota on the recommendation and the arguments over it, as well as other objections in the contested case hearing.
The recommendation prompted lobbyists to redouble efforts in the South Dakota State Legislature on bills pertaining to local control of water rights and in-situ leach mining of uranium, which has never been conducted inside state lines.
“Our water protection bill HB 1193 is going head-to-head with the latest bad news from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” the statewide family-farm organization Dakota Rural Action said in a legislative update newsletter.
“Despite not being done with their cultural resources review, the NRC sent out a press release that they found ‘no significant environmental impacts’ to the Dewey-Burdock Project,” it said.
“This confirms what we’ve been saying all along: We can’t depend on federal agencies to protect our water and land. We need to pass our water legislation to ensure there will be no lasting harmful impacts to our water systems.”
STATE LEGISLATURE FACES BILLS ON URANIUM MINING, WATER
HB1193 would amend South Dakota law to prohibit in-situ leach uranium mining “if the proposed area lacks proper confining zones or contains geologic faults that would act as conduits for groundwater movement.”
It would allow permitting only if “a restoration demonstration” successfully shows that “waste water will not reduce the quality of groundwater.”
It would also require an operator to restore groundwater quality levels to, at least “the baseline water quality levels as reported in the restoration plan.”
Among its co-sponsors are reservation district representatives Troy Heinert and Kevin Killer.
The Dewey-Burdock proposal would generate as many as 90 jobs in the Edgemont area, if the state signs over 9,000 gallons per minute of the underground water table to Powertech.
However it “would contaminate area water, and open the door for eight other uranium companies that have an interest in the Black Hills, according to the Rapid City-based grassroots Clean Water Alliance.
“We will continue to consider all avenues for dealing with this deficient document and with proposals to mine uranium at the expense of our water,” co-founder Lilias Jarding said after the NRC announcement.
Doctors, city officials, business people, tribal leaders, ranchers, college professors, and others oppose uranium mining in the Black Hills for very good reasons,” Jarding continued: “Water is life.”
South Dakota previously had a law charging the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources with supervising underground water at mine sites. Powertech’s lobbyists, including its local representative and former state legislator Mark Hollenbeck, successfully argued to suspend that oversight and also helped prevent efforts in the 2013 legislature to reinstate it.
FOREIGN INVESTORS MOVE STATE, FEDERAL AGENDAS
Hollenbeck again is lobbying in Pierre in the 2014 legislature. Clement was moved from the position of president and CEO to that of corporate secretary during a transfer of shares and management responsibilities at Powertech in 2013. He again is listed as president and CEO in the company’s most recent written release.
The transfer put Powertech Uranium Corp. under the majority ownership of Hong Kong-based Asarga Resources, Ltd. originally under the majority ownership of Canadian investors; the corporation is represented in South Dakota by a wholly-owned subsidiary, Powertech (USA) Inc.
The foreign investors helped convince DENR oversight boards on water and mining to hold hearings on various contested state permits in 2013. By years end both boards’ suspended hearings pending federal decisions.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe is among 23 tribal governments involved in required federal consultation on decisions about the preservation of the cultural and historic sites in the proposed mining and milling area.
The tribes insist on taking part in a survey of sacred sites on the entire property, but the company has only provided resources for non-Indian surveys of a much more limited geographic scope.
“These cultural resource issues are certainly serious, but equally serious are the groundwater contamination issues,” Parsons said.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe contends that Powertech should produce baseline water data for consideration in the permitting process.
The NRC staff recommendation of SEIS approval allows the company to conduct the baseline studies after its permits are granted, which means “that data will be excluded from public scrutiny,” Parsons noted.
The NRC staff formally has objected to admitting each and every contention the tribe has filed in the case, including the tribe’s argument that it has an interest in the impact of the proposal.
The licensing board has ruled against the staff in about half the cases, admitting a dozen or so contentions to be argued in the upcoming hearings.
NRC staff is soliciting public comments be submitted by emailing Dewey-Burdock_SEIS_Comments.Resource@nrc.gov.
(Contact Talli Nauman Health and Environment Editor for NSN at email@example.com)