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Native Sun News: Agency weighs uranium mine near sacred site

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

Comment period ends with Sept. 28 public hearing on uranium mining and milling site in view of Mato Tipila Photo Courtesy Powder River Basin Resource Council

Feds schedule comment period for uranium mining proposal near Mato Tipila
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

SUNDANCE, Wyo.— A federal Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) panel has given the public until Sept. 28 to submit written or oral comments about Strata Energy Inc.’s proposal to mine for uranium near Mato Tipila (Bear’s Lodge or Devil’s Tower) in the northern Black Hills.

One of several proposals to open new uranium mines without cleaning up abandoned ones, the Ross Project is in sight of Devil’s Tower National Monument in the vicinity of Oshoto Reservoir on the Belle Fourche River. The tower area is a traditional location for cultural activities, prayers, and other religious and spiritual purposes among various tribes.

The ASLB, an oversight committee for Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff, scheduled a meeting to hear public testimony on the Australian company’s proposal for the Ross Project aquifer mining at the Crook County Courthouse in Sundance, Wyoming, from 3 to 6 p.m. on Sept. 28.

Strata Energy Inc., or SEI, a wholly owned subsidiary of Peninsula Energy Ltd., received a license from the NRC staff earlier in 2014 own, handle and transport “source, and special nuclear material” in the form of unlimited quantities of uranium and byproducts for an indefinite time period, in order to carry out in-situ leach (ISL) mining and milling.

The Ross Project would employ approximately 200 people in the construction of 15 to 25 well fields and a total of 1,400 to 2,200 injection wells on a 1,721-acre site adjoining additional uranium properties that provide potential for expansion of operations.

The proposal includes a yellow-cake processing plant that would employ up to 100 people during construction. It would have the capacity to mill uranium and byproducts from Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.

The Wyoming statewide grassroots Powder River Basin Resource Council and the national non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council intervened in the case, and the ASLB admitted several of their contentions, which the public could address at the hearing Sept. 28.

A formal evidentiary hearing of the parties in the contested case was set to follow the public hearing beginning Sept. 30 at 9:30 a.m. in the Wyoming Meeting Room of the Energy Hall at the Cam-Plex Multi-Event Facilities located on 1635 Reata Drive in Gillette, Wyoming.

Interveners relied on testimony from the Oglala Sioux Tribe to state their preliminary arguments for protection of cultural and water resources in light of the proposed mining.

The testimony was originally submitted in the ongoing contested case over Powertech Azarga’s proposed Dewey-Burdock Project to mine the aquifer for uranium in the southern Black Hills -- in which the tribe is one of many interveners.

It states that cultural surveys and analysis don’t meet legal obligations, tribes haven’t been consulted as required by law, baseline groundwater quantity and quality information is lacking, mitigation measures are inadequately described, and related cumulative impacts are not given enough consideration to comply with regulations.

The company and the NRC staff concur that the information is necessary to ensure public health and environmental protection. They promise the required data will be collected over the course of the project.

However, interveners claim that the figures should be made available from the outset, as part of the licensing and review processes under the National Environmental Protection Act. They claim a “virtual certainty that SEI will be unable to restore groundwater to primary or secondary limits, noting, “the need to disclose the reasonable range of hazardous constituents likely to remain on site in light of that certainty.”

Powder River Basin Resource Council says the environmental impact statement on which the contested license is based “is deficient because it does not fully consider that the proposed uranium recovery area has over 5,000 abandoned drill holes from the early days of uranium exploration.

According to the statement, Strata recognize that at least 1,682 old exploration wells exist in the area, and the company promises to plug them. It has located 759, and has successfully plugged 59. “That means there are over 1,600 old wells in the area that could serve as conduits for water contamination from Strata’s project, and we know there are likely thousands more,” the organization said in an invitation encouraging public participation in the hearings.

“NRC needs to do a better job at analyzing the risk what these old drill holes – both inside and immediately adjacent to Strata’s project area – represent,” it said.

“Consider the track record of failed aquifer restoration at previous uranium mines in Wyoming, Nebraska, and Texas,” it added.

To date, not a single uranium project has fully restored an aquifer to pre-mining water quality. For that reason the EPA provides exemptions to the requirements of the Clean Drinking Water Act for companies that apply.

Members of the public have been instructed to submit comments electronically or by making oral statements at the hearing in the Sundance Community Meeting Room in the basement of the Crook County Court House Basement located at 309 Cleveland St.

However, the ASLB has warned it “reserves the right to cancel the Sunday afternoon session scheduled above if there has not been a sufficient showing of public interest as reflected by the number of preregistered speakers.”

Requests to speak may be sent by mail to: Administrative Judge G. Paul Bollwerk III, Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel, Mail Stop T-3F23, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, D.C. 20555-0001; by fax to (301)415-5599; or by email to kathleen.schroeder@nrc.gov and paul.bollwerk@nrc.gov.

Written comments prior to Sept. 28 can be sent by mail to Office of the Secretary, Rulemakings and Adjudications Staff, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, D.C. 20555-0001; by fax to (301)415-1101; or by email to hearingdocket@nrc.gov with a copy to paul.bollwerk@nrc.gov.

(Contact Talli Nauman at talli.nauman@gmail.com) Copyright permission Native Sun News

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