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Native Sun News: Mahto Tipila threatened by mining proposals

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

Mahto Tipila, located in Wyoming’s northeastern Crook County on the South Dakota state line is known by many names, including Bear’s Lodge and Devils Tower. Photo from Wyoming Tourism

Lakota Territory mining proposals spur Mahto Tipila Prayer Gathering
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

RAPID CITY –– A Prayer Gathering for the protection of sacred and burial sites is set for June 28 at Mahto Tipila, also known as Bear’s Lodge or Devils Tower, the non-profit Defenders of the Black Hills announced in a written invitation to the public.

Foreign companies are proposing to mine for uranium, gold, and rare-earth minerals, including vanadium, on thousands of acres just south of the national monument. In two separate projects, they require permits for air quality, water extraction, land-use, and handling of radioactive materials, as well as other government licensing now underway.

The U.S. National Park Service, which administers the monument in the Black Hills of Wyoming, has waived the entrance fee for those attending the gathering.

Representatives of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, the Chippewa Cree Tribe, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe have been in discussions about the proposed Ross Project, which is to reopen uranium mines and build a yellow-cake processing plant at a 1,721-acre site southwest of Bear’s Lodge.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe has told the Native Sun News it is opposed to the other undertaking, the Bear Lodge Critical Rare Earth Project, which would be an open-pit strip mine on a 1,700-acre tract located southeast of the landmark.

More than 20 Northern Plains tribes have cultural affiliation with Bear’s Lodge and its environs, according to historical documentation collected by the National Park Service. The agency has been in charge of protecting the Native American sacred site since President Theodore Roosevelt declared the 1,267-foot volcanic rock monolith the country’s first national monument in 1906.

“All tribes and people are welcome,” to the gathering, said Defenders of the Black Hills. “Traditional dress is encouraged and women are asked to wear skirts.” The custom of avoiding revealing attire should be observed, it said.

A carpool is scheduled to leave the Mother Butler Center in Rapid City at 7:30 a.m. to drive to the mountain gathering site north of Hulett, Wyoming.

A Prayer Walk is set to begin at 10:30 at the Ceremonial Grounds on the west side of the peak. The walk will cover the distance of 1.3 miles around the base of the mountain, finishing where it begins.

“Elders and those unable to do the Prayer Walk may stay at the Ceremonial Grounds,” the invitation states. “No pipes will be filled but prayer ties and flags may be tied on the trees at the Ceremonial Grounds,” it says.

A potluck lunch is scheduled at the conclusion of the prayers. Lawn chairs and umbrellas are recommended for participants; the event is off-limits to cameras and recorders, according to the invitation.

The Canadian proponent of the rare earth mine, Rare Element Resources Ltd. (RER), is calling for a 43-year mountain-top removal project on 1,060 acres of public U.S. Forest Service land and 640 private acres in Lakota Territory that have been used to date for mineral exploration, logging, grazing, farming, hunting, camping, snowmobiling, skiing, hiking, horseback riding, and other outdoor activities.

In the Lakota tradition, Mahto Tipila, located 15 miles northwest of the mining project area, is designated as a place to fast, pray, and worship Wakan Tanka, the Great Spirit. The surrounding countryside in the heart of 1868 Treaty territory is considered a holy land, used for personal and group rituals for healing and spiritual guidance.

The National Environmental Protection Act and the National Historic Preservation Act specify that project approval can be granted only after government-to-government consultation between federal and tribal officials to avoid or mitigate destruction of cultural assets posed by mining.

The Forest Service and the Wyoming State Historical Preservation Office have noted that the project area in the Wyoming county of Crook, adjacent to the South Dakota border, contains some cultural resources that are either “eligible or potentially eligible” for the National Register of Historic Places. Parts of the area have not yet been surveyed for those purposes.

If permitted, drilling and blasting would create a 232-acre pit on National Forest jurisdiction in the high-altitude Bear Lodge Mountains area characterized by pine forests and grassy valleys. Overburden, waste and low-grade ore would be piled next to that on a 426-acre parcel of private property.

Sediment ponds would be built to collect leaking water and a diversion channel would detour surface runoff away from nearby Beaver Creek along a 4,000-foot length of its channel. Some 20,000 linear feet of trenching would accompany the mining. The discharges from the mine would eventually be released into nearby streams that are tributaries of the Belle Fourche River.

About nine miles of roads would be removed from public access to facilitate the mining and milling. The main haul roads would be Miller Creek Rd., which is northeast of Wyoming Highway 14, and county roads 208, 266, and 8, as well as Forest Service System roads 854 and 851. The route would require upgrading for the job.

In 13 to 17 round trips daily, semi-trucks would haul ore 45 miles south to Upton, Wyoming. There, a private hydrometallurgical processer would run a round-the-clock operation using city water and chemicals to leach out the rare earth elements.

RER applied for a patent in 2013 for the leaching process, which delivered an 85-percent recovery of rare earth elements from ore, a 97-percent thorium-free product, and recycling of processing agents, based on results of a pilot project, the company said in releasing its year-end financial results on March 17.

Process waste from the plant would be neutralized and disposed in a lined tailings storage facility adjacent to it. The pay dirt and the radioactive thorium separated in the leaching process would be shipped away for their respective disposition.

At peak staffing the mining and processing project could employ 200 people.

Rare earth elements are used in making all kinds of high tech devices, including cell phones, laptops, flat-panel televisions, wind turbines, lasers, fiber optics, and cars.

Mining promoters, such as Bob Livingston, editor of Personal Liberty Digest, advocate the opening of new rare-earth operations in the United States, where California has the only active project.

“American minerals and metals mining supports hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs and provides domestic manufacturers with a reliable supply of critically important raw materials and commodities that can help re-build America's economy,” says a petition he is circulating.

The U.S. is home to an abundance of untapped strategic and critical minerals capable of helping meet our nation’s vast manufacturing and national security needs. Yet our nation’s manufacturing industry is dependent on foreign resources from countries like China, which currently controls 97% of the world’s rare earth supply,” he notes.

Strata Energy Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of the Australian company Peninsula Energy Ltd. hopes to prevail in a contested case hearing on its license to begin underground solution mining of uranium at the proposed Ross Project, within eyesight of rock climbers on the Bear’s Lodge.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Licensing and Safety Board have yet to announce a date and place for the oversight panel’s inquiry.

The project calls for construction of 15 to 25 well fields and a total of 1,400 to 2,200 injection wells to conduct in-situ leaching, or mining in underground water tables where acid can be used to dissolve strategic minerals from bedrock. It is located adjacent to other potential uranium development properties, according to the mining company.

In written testimony submitted on the Environmental Impact Statement for the project, local people warned that 5,000 abandoned drill holes remain in the area, only 55 of which have been plugged, posing the risk of transferring polluted mine water to unexpected places.

“Water is a finite resource, especially in Wyoming,” said commenter William Anderson. “To contaminate this water is to make it no longer a resource. Water is lifeblood. Pure water is the most important part of the future of the United States,” he added.

The local Prairie Hills Audubon Society beseeched regulators to consider “implications for nearby Bear’s Lodge, a traditional location for cultural activities, prayers, and other religious and spiritual purposes.

“Please give full consideration and respect to concerns raised by Native Americans,” the Audubon Society chapter requested. “Special attention should be paid to Native American treaty issues, cultural, historic, sacred and religious issues. Please consider this as an environmental justice issue,” it said.

(Contact Talli Nauman at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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