Native Sun News: Water issues worry Natives in Lakota country
The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman. All content © Native Sun News.

The opposition to uranium mining in Lakota Territory garnered exposure this month when a United Nations working group in Geneva accepted a joint report claiming the activity violates internationally recognized human rights.

More than two dozen organizations submitted testimony to the U.S. Human Rights Network, on indigenous and other human rights violations for the report made to the Ninth Session of the Universal Periodic Review of the working group of the U.N. Human Rights Council, held Nov. 1-12.

"The Lakota Nation and the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota have been subjected to the deleterious effects of uranium mining including illness, deaths and environmental degradation by uranium mining in the sacred Black Hills and the panhandle of Nebraska,” the report states.

The affected area is “land recognized and protected by the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty with the United States,” it notes.

Opponents’ big concerns about the uranium mining are over water shortages and pollution impacting people’s very survival, according to Debra White Plume, director of the Owe Aku non-profit Lakota organization, which submitted testimony.

White Plume and Owe Aku (Bring Back the Way) have been leading an offensive against in-situ-leach (ISL) mining of uranium near Pine Ridge by subsidiaries of the Canadian corporation Cameco, Inc.

In 2007 the opponents secured standing, along with the Oglala Sioux Tribe and other parties, to take part in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearings on the company’s permit applications.

“Cameco mining impacts who we are, what we do, and when we’re going to do it,” White Plume said. “There’s no place we can just go and get more Lakotas.”

Canadian Company Wants to Expand in Nebraska
Cameco is the world’s largest uranium producer. Its subsidiary Crow Butte Resources (formerly Wyoming Fuel Company) has been mining uranium for 27 years at the Crow Butte site just south of Crawford, Nebraska.

The company is seeking a 10-year federal permit renewal at the site, as well as a permit to expand its ISL operations to one of several contemplated “satellite” locations, known as North Trend site. That operation would be just north of Crawford, some 30 miles from the southern border of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

White Plume told the Native Sun News that not only Pine Ridge Reservation residents face hazards from the use of underground water in the mining.

Because it is in the Arikaree Aquifer area, “it’s something that everybody who depends on that aquifer needs to think about, and that means everybody from Murdo, South Dakota to Texas,” she said in an exclusive interview.

Separate hearings are underway to determine whether the most recent geological studies show any possibility of contamination from the Chadron Aquifer, which is where Cameco wants the exemption, to the Arikaree, which provides Pine Ridge drinking water.

“We know that any decision to exempt the aquifer [from protection against mining] prior to the full adjudication of those issues would be premature, Public Interest Lawyer David Frankel testified on behalf of the Western Nebraska Resources Council, at a Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality public hearing in Crawford on Aug. 23.

Cameco Would Withdraw Part of Chadron Aquifer from Drinking Water Reserve
More than 50 people attended the hearing, which was called about Cameco’s request to remove a 2,100-acre portion of the Chadron Aquifer north of Crawford from classification as a public drinking water source in order to use it instead for uranium mining.

Another NDEQ hearing on Sept. 23 entertained the company’s request for permission to install a deep injection well there to carry out the mining. ISL entails pumping a solution into the aquifer via the deep injection well to release uranium from other minerals so it can be extracted for processing.

The state cannot permit the well unless it first grants the request to “exempt” or prevent the designated area of the aquifer from being used as a drinking water source in the future.

One of the six people who testified at the exemption hearing, Crow Butte Resources’ Counsel Marc McGuire noted the successful and environmentally compliant record of the company. “All of CBR's actions have proven its worthiness and entitlement for an aquifer exemption,” he said.

Further, he noted the company has posted a $29 million performance bond to guarantee cleanup operations.

The water in question is not within current drinking water standards because of its trace uranium and radioactivity, according to NDEQ underground injection control program specialist Jenny Abrahamson. Only a municipal treatment system could afford to remediate it, she said at the hearing.

Nonetheless, Frankel argued, “That doesn't mean that a cost effective solution doesn't exist to use that water. And I'm sure many of you have noticed that the scarcity of available water resources is becoming one of the pressing issues of our generation.”

Public Hearing Airs Arguments
White Plume, who also testified, later told the Native Sun News that the exemption constitutes bending the law. “If they didn’t change the regulations to meet the needs of the corporations, then the corporations would not be allowed to mine, and our water would be protected,” she said.

Thomas Cooke, a representative of Chadron Native American Center and of Running Strong for American Indian Youth testified about breaches of compliance by Crow Butte Resources, citing two spills, which engendered fines for “accidentally poisoning the water of Pine Ridge.”

As a plaintiff in NRC hearings over water contentions raised by Crow Butte’s operation, Cooke told the Native Sun News on Nov. 13, his organizations are seeking funding to monitor water sources for comparison to baseline findings of quality.

Citing Murphy’s Law of “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong,” Cooke predicted that “as mining continues and accidents continue, there is nothing but further contamination to look forward to.“It’s a clean water issue, and we’re committed to it,” he added.

Western Nebraska Resource Council Education and Outreach Coordinator Buffalo Bruce told the Native Sun News his 20-year-old non-profit is responsible for litigation that resulted in improved regulations and safety measures at the Nebraska uranium mining site.

As an organization dedicated to accountability, he said, “We’re the ones that forced them to do that. They didn’t do it on their own.”

His work is to “educate people on the destructive impact of the nuclear cycle on the earth and all living things,” he said.

No dates are currently set for upcoming state or federal hearings.

“We’re just waiting for them to set dates,” White Plume told the Native Sun News. “It takes a lot of patience to fight these multinational corporations,” she added.

United States Lags Behind United Nations
The report to the United Nations also considered the impacts of uranium mining on other Indian lands, where half of U.S. uranium is located. It states:

“The Pueblo, Navajo, Hopi, Havasupai, and Western Shoshone Peoples were exposed to the ruinous effects of uranium mining milling, waste storage and weapons testing, since the late 1940s. Uranium production has killed hundreds of indigenous peoples, including hundreds of miners still dying from radiation poisoning and cancers of all sorts. Radioactive residue blown by the wind and seeping into surface and ground water in a continual poisoning of Indigenous communities has never been remedied.

“Governmental ‘remediation measures’ consist only of leveling out the abandoned uranium mines and bulldozing dirt over the poisoned earth. The groundwater upon which the peoples and wildlife depend can never be restored. President Obama’s call for increased nuclear energy development is posing a renewed threat to Indigenous peoples, as well as sacred sites such as the Grand Canyon, Arizona, and Mt. Taylor in New Mexico.

“As reported by the Denver Post, in the five Western states where uranium is mined in the U.S., 4,333 new claims were filed in 2004, according to the Interior Department; in 2009 the number swelled to 43,153. Most if not all such claims are on lands where indigenous peoples live and conduct religious ceremonies. These lands are subject to aboriginal title and traditional use as noted by the HRC. The views of the indigenous peoples and communities who will be directly affected is yet again, not considered.”

The U.S. Human Rights Network concluded, “The United States continues to allow the destruction, depletion and desecration of ancestral lands of indigenous peoples subject to aboriginal title. These include areas of profound religious, spiritual and cultural significance as well as lands and waters essential for their subsistence ways of life.

“Corporations are issued permits to extract uranium, coal, oil, timber, gas and other resources and to release and use all types of persistent and deadly pollutants on or near Indigenous lands and communities, causing detrimental impacts, and in some cases, irreversible damage, to their spiritual, cultural, social and physical survival and health.”

In addition to Owe Aku, other organizations that contributed to the U.S. Human Rights Network report were: Indigenous Environmental Network, International Indian Treaty Council, International Justice Program, Laguna Acoma Peoples for a Safe Environment Nation of Hawaii (Oahu and Maui Hawaii), National Native American Prisoners’ Rights Coalition, Pit River Tribe and Wintu Nation, Venetie Traditional Council, Gwich’in in Athabascan Nation, Wanblee Wakpa Oyate, Pine Ridge Reservation, and Western Shoshone Defense Project.

Andrew Reid, professor of American Indian Law at the University of Colorado, said the impact of the report on the United States might be minimal, however, because it is the only country in the world that has not ratified the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“They don’t want to give Indian people the right to decide over their own uranium,” he told Native Sun News.

(Talli Nauman is co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness. Contact her at