Native Sun News: NRC delays uranium bid in South Dakota

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman. All content © Native Sun News.

Native American and non-Indian activists welcomed the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s May 6 notice that it is suspending the safety review on the Canadian-owned Powertech USA Inc.’s proposal to conduct the first ever in-situ leach uranium mining in South Dakota.

“Today is a good day for our sacred water and Mother Earth!” said Owe Aku (Bring Back the Way) founder Debra White Plume. “It is a very good day,” said Defenders of the Black Hills Coordinator Charmaine White Face.

The NRC, in a letter to Powertech Vice President of Environmental Health and Safety Resources Richard E. Blubaugh, suspended the review due to “significant deficiencies with the application … related to the protection of public health and safety,” it said.

“Given the suspension of the safety review, the NRC staff goal of completing its review of

Powertech’s license application within 24 months is no longer viable,” said the letter signed by Keith I. McConnell, NRC director of Decommissioning and Uranium Recovery Licensing.

Powertech had welcomed the 24-month target the NRC announced in March after years of delays leading up to the agency’s second request for more complete information from the company.

Powertech previously expected to begin production in southwestern South Dakota in 2009, then 2011, according to company representatives.

The new target date included time for consultation with tribal governments, according to the NRC. It told the company it could potentially finish a Safety Evaluation Report in October 2011, a Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) in December 2011, and a Final SEIS in June 2012.

At the company’s request the agency scheduled an April consultation to discuss the deficiencies.

The ensuing May notification “significantly slows Powertech’s effort to mine in the Black Hills,” said Clean Water Alliance attorney Bruce Ellison. “We hope that this will signal potential investors that there are major problems with this proposal and that Powertech will give up on this ill-advised project,” he said.

Powertech wants to mine and process uranium in the southern Black Hills about 13 miles northwest of Edgemont, at the Dewey Burdock site in Fall River and Custer counties, which adjoin the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The company is seeking permits and waivers to conduct in-situ leach mining. The process entails pumping brine into an ore body to dissolve solids and bring them to the surface for on-site processing, then disposing the waste solution underground or on the land.

The NRC letter to Brubaugh did not establish a new timeline for the application process.

“The actual review time needed before a licensing decision can be made will depend on several factors, including the availability of staff, the amount of new information provided, and completeness of Powertech’s responses to the continued deficiencies,” the NRC informed Brubaugh this month.

The agency listed “critical issues” that “lack sufficient detailed information for the staff to make a finding related to the protection of public health and safety.”

They are: surface water contamination from mining fluids entering unplugged exploration holes; well-field impacts on hydraulic flows to adjoining, underground mine; and the possibility of inadequate containment of production fluids.

“These are some of the major concerns that the Clean Water Alliance has been raising about this project all along,” said Lilias Jarding, an environmental policy specialist with the non-profit organization based in Rapid City, South Dakota.

“The geology of this site is simply not suited for in-situ leach mining, and if the project went through, it would cause both underground and surface water contamination,” she said. “We are glad that the NRC has suspended the safety review.”

Spills, leaks, mechanical failures and transportation accidents are common with uranium mining, the Clean Water Alliance said. Ingesting uranium leads to bone, liver and blood cancer. Inhalation of radon gas causes lung cancer, it noted.

The primary radiation health effect of concern is an increased probability of the exposed individual developing cancer, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. However, it adds that establishing accountability for the effect is difficult: “Cancer cases induced by radiation are generally indistinguishable from other naturally occurring cancers and occur years after the exposure takes place,” it says.

The NRC letter mentioned that “additional areas where information is needed are documented in our March 7, 2011, e-mail to Powertech.” It added that because “responses did not provide sufficient information for the staff to make its protection of public health and safety finding, we believe that proceeding with the review at this time is not the most effective use of scarce resources.

“Although it is suspending work on the safety review, the staff will continue certain activities related to the environmental review of Powertech’s application, the letter said. “These activities include the continued preparation of the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement and the continuation of the consultation process required by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act,” it continued.

The Oglala Lakota, Standing Rock and Sisseton Wahpeton tribes have requested that the NRC carefully consider and consult with tribal governments on the Section 106 protections.

At the tribes’ urging, the NRC is conducting a field trip in June to the proposed mine site and another operated by the Canadian Cameco Corp. in Nebraska.

Expected to accompany NRC staff are representatives invited from the Oglala, Standing Rock Yankton, Rosebud, Cheyenne River, Crow Creek, Flandreau-Santee and Lower Brule Sioux Tribes, as well as the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, Spirit Lake Tribe, Lower Sioux Indian Community, Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Northern Arapaho Tribe, Eastern Shoshone Tribe, Santee Sioux Nation, Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, Crow Tribal Council, Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara), Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, Assiniboine Sioux, Fort Peck Tribes, and the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma.

“We now must strengthen ourselves for the upcoming release of the SEIS and the Section 106 work to be done,” said White Plume.

She noted that the recent radiation pollution caused by tidal waves’ damage to uranium-fired nuclear power plants in Japan brings home the need to reexamine proposed mining and processing of yellow-cake by Powertech and Cameco.

“Maybe the global impacts of the tragedy at Fukushima and the senators in Washington, D.C. asking questions about where foreign-owned uranium mines in America are shipping their yellow-cake has rousted the NRC staff, who seem to have been on cruise control for the past 15 years,” she said.

“It is their process; we must remember that. But we fight them with these weapons — their own laws,” she added.

In addition to arguments for health and environmental protection, she noted spiritual and legal objections to the mining.

“The Black Hills are sacred, and were held and retained as ancestral lands by the Lakota Nation when it entered into the 1851 and 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaties with the United States,” she said.

(Talli Nauman is the NSN Health and Environment Editor and is a co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness. Contact her at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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