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Native Sun News: Oglala Sioux Tribe worried about sacred sites

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

Michael CatchesEnemy
Michael CatchesEnemy

Oglala Sioux Tribe says Powertech jeopardizes cultural resources
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor

HERMOSA — Prior to the launch on Earth Day April 22 of a national grassroots campaign to clean up abandoned uranium mines, the Oglala Sioux Tribe requested the federal Atomic Safety and Licensing Board suspend Powertech (USA) Inc.’s operating license to reopen some of those mines in South Dakota.

The tribe said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff’s recent license to start radioactive materials handling operations at Powertech’s proposed Dewey-Burdock project site should be a stayed because it jeopardizes cultural resources.

Any number of sacred sites already may have been desecrated by 169 abandoned uranium mines, together with hundreds more exploration drill holes, pits, ponds, and waste piles that remain in the project area from previous operations in the 1950s and 1970s. The stay request is concerned with preventing any more damage from the proposed new mining.

“The tribe contends that a stay is necessary and appropriate in this case due to the distinct and present threat of irreparable harm to its cultural resources that will result from the applicant Powertech commencing ground disturbing construction activities at the site before the issues raised by the tribe for hearing are resolved,” it says in a motion filed April 14.

“Irreparable harm would occur regardless of whether the mine may become fully operational, and cannot be repaired should the board or commission decide to invalidate the license or add conditions protective of the tribe’s cultural resources,” the tribe notes.

Powertech has stated publicly that it has no plans to begin construction until 2015. However Powertech counsel recently advised the board that construction activities may be imminent.

“Powertech believes that upon issuance of that license, the licensee is free to move forward with operations under that license including construction, other types of activities, up and including operating a facility,” company lawyer Chris Pugsley said at a Feb. 12 board meeting.

“The lands encompassed by the Powertech proposal are within the Oglala Sioux Tribe's aboriginal lands,” Tribal Historic Preservation Office Director Michael CatchesEnemy told the board. “As a result, the cultural resources, such as burials, items of cultural patrimony, artifacts, sites, and other material culture, etc., belong to and/or could be associated with the tribe upon proper identification, documentation, evaluation, and recordation,” he said in an affidavit.

“Included within the territory the Powertech application contemplates are current or extinct water resources,” he added. “Such resources are known to have been favored camping sites of indigenous peoples, both historically and prehistorically, and the likelihood that cultural artifacts and evidence of burial grounds exist in these areas is strong,” he noted.

Powertech’s environmental report, accompanying the license application, notes that Augustana College Archaeological Laboratory’s April and August 2007 studies determined "the sheer volume of sites documented in the area [is] noteworthy," and the proposed project site has a "high density" of cultural resources.

Augustana documented 161 previously unrecorded archaeological sites and revisited 29 previously recorded sites, among them some 200 hearths, according to the report. The college did not find 28 previously recorded sites, it noted.

The study was the basis for the NRC staff’s analysis of cultural resources in its recommendation for approval of the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement that the staff used to justify extending the license.

CatchesEnemy complained that the staff broke its promise to conduct additional surveys and solicit public comment before recommending approval. He notes that Powertech has not entered into any Memorandum of Agreement with the tribe. “Similarly, the Programmatic Agreement establishing a timetable for tribal input on the project “was finalized by NRC staff over the official objections of the Oglala Sioux Tribe,” he said.

The tribe contends that “the NRC Staff and applicant have yet to complete a competent cultural resources inventory or survey of the site, and have yet to design, plan for, or put in place any demonstrated effective mitigation measures to protect cultural resources there.

“Thus, given the lack of information related to the existence and location of significant cultural resources at the site, the harm to the Tribe, both to its cultural resources directly and to its procedural rights under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) will be irreparable, and will begin to occur the moment any ground-disturbing construction activities commence at the site,” the tribe says in documents filed in the contested administrative case.

The board has no required deadline to resolve the stay motion, according to Jeffrey C. Parsons, the tribe’s attorney in the matter.

It has set hearings Aug. 18 to afford members the general public an opportunity to inform the board of their concerns. Beginning Aug. 19, the board has scheduled hearings on interveners’ arguments, including those of the tribe, the Rapid City-based Clean Water Alliance, and the Consolidated Interveners, who include Native Americans, as well as neighboring ranchers Susan Henderson and Dayton Hyde of the Wild Horse Sanctuary.

Represented by Buffalo Gap attorney, David Frankel, Consolidated Interveners are claiming that the NRC staff’s Notice of License Issuance dated April 8, was “premature and defective” because it came out more than four months before the scheduled hearings, “thereby depriving the Consolidated Interveners from an opportunity to be heard and violating their due process and, in the case of indigenous members of Consolidated Interveners, their rights under the trust duty/responsibility doctrine owed by the federal government to them.”

Preliminary ground disturbance, earthwork, construction and other activities leading up to operations could destroy burial and ceremonial sites yet to be surveyed, sustain the interveners, including Oglala Lakota Debra White Plume.

Powertech’s proposal entails the first in-situ leach (ISL) mining for the company and the state of South Dakota. It would involve solution mining in underground water tables and a regional yellow-cake processing plant on the surface.

The project area is located on more than 10,000 acres in Custer and Fall River counties in extreme southwestern South Dakota, 50 miles from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and at the headwaters of the Cheyenne River, which drains the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River Sioux Indian reservations before joining the Missouri upstream from other reservations.

Two non-profits, Defenders of the Black Hills and Clean Up The Mines, planned to draw attention to the need for cleanup of the abandoned mines there by hosting an Earth Day event April 22 at the Cheyenne River Bridge on South Dakota Highway 40, 15 miles southeast of Hermosa.

They announced a nationwide campaign for reclamation of all abandoned uranium mines in the United States.

South Dakota has at least 272 abandoned, open-pit uranium mines, including the ones at Dewey-Burdock. The other 103 are in the northwest corner of the state near Buffalo.

More than 10,000 abandoned uranium mines have been identified across the country, primarily in the Western States, and more than 10 million people live within a 50-mile radius of one, organizers said.

The Northern Great Plains Region of Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota contain more than 2,000.

“These hazardous abandoned uranium mines poison the air, land and water. The health effects are tremendous,” said Charmaine White Face, a volunteer with Clean Up The Mines and Coordinator of Defenders of the Black Hills.

“Currently no laws require cleanup of these dangerous abandoned uranium mines,” she said. “We are letting Congress know: It is time to clean up the mines!”

“A private abandoned, open-pit uranium mine about 200 meters from an elementary school in Ludlow, South Dakota, emits 1,770 microRems per hour, more than four times as much radiation as is being emitted in many locations evacuated long term as a result of contamination by the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan,” University of Michigan Nuclear Health Professor Kim Kearfott said in a statement prepared for the event.

Assisting in the event were Popular Resistance and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

(Contact Talli Nauman, NSN Health and Environment Editor at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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