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Native Sun News: Release of secret uranium mining data ordered

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

During a concert and rally near Hot Springs on the eve of federal administrative hearings over proposed uranium mining upstream from several Indian reservations, Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary founder Dayton Hyde warned against water pollution from the nearby project. Photo by Talli Nauman

Oglala Sioux Tribe and allies win release of secret corporate water data
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

Part I

RAPID CITY — In answer to prayers of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and allies in the federal case to revoke licensing of the proposed Dewey-Burdock uranium mine and mill, a panel of administrative judges ordered corporate disclosure Aug. 20 of secret bore-hole records about the site’s geology.

“In the context of the contentions before us, the board finds this data is relevant and must be disclosed,” panel Chair William Froelich announced on the second of three days of Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) evidentiary hearings in the case challenging Powertech Uranium Corp.’s mining and milling proposal in southwestern South Dakota.

The order applies to a suite of 1,400 electric drill-logs purchased by the company, now renamed Azarga Uranium Corp., after the NRC staff decided to grant a radioactive materials handling license for an in-situ leach mine and mill earlier this year. The license would permit project startup at the site located in the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty territory of the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The administrative judges from the Washington, D.C.- based Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB), an oversight body to review commission staff matters, had previously requested disclosure of the documentation on Aug. 6.

On Aug. 7, the company objected to revealing the information and argued that the electric logs, or e-logs, are not relevant to the ASLB proceeding.

That position prompted a flurry of legal retorts from lawyers for the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Consolidated Interveners -- made up of the non-profit Owe Aku (“Bring Back the Way”), the ad hoc groups Clean Water Alliance and Aligning for Responsible Mining, Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary owner Dayton Hyde, cattle rancher Susan Henderson, and others.

The tribe’s counsel, Jeffrey Parsons, alleged corporate non-compliance with NRC procedural rules due to Powertech Azarga’s failure to meet the panel’s three-day deadline for specifying the date by which the logs would become available under the initial order.

“It was a very clear ruling that they must produce all their data,” Parsons told the Native Sun News following the repeated order. “There’s still a pending motion for additional information,” he also noted.

The judges’ reissuance of the order followed expert testimony from hydrogeologists that the information in the drill logs would be relevant to interveners’ Contention No. 3. That contention is that the uranium mining project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FSEIS), on which the NRC staff’s licensing decision rested, failed to include adequate hydrogeological information to demonstrate a way to keep mine water safely confined.

Hydrogeologist Errol Lawrence, an expert witness called by Powertech, said such logs are part of water determinations at mine sites. “The e-logs give us bore-hole data information about the geology. By themselves they wouldn’t provide much,” he said, adding, “Wells will give us the hydraulic information. We combine them.”

He said the 16-square-mile (10,580-acre) Dewey-Burdock site has been logged using electric sensors mounted on probes inserted into an average of 113 boreholes per square mile.

Some 6,000 boreholes already were disclosed during the licensing application. Only about 200 more will be revealed in the new data set, since many of the 1,400 locations in it are duplicates of those collected from other sources earlier, Lawrence said.

Hydrogeologist and geochemist Robert Moran, an expert witness for interveners, also testified that the e-logs and water studies produce more results if matched up. “In this borehole information, you can get a lot of ideas about water quality and natural radioactivity when interpreted in combination. You are usually not interpreting one set of logs by themselves,” he said.

Powertech Azarga counsel Christopher Pugsley objected to the ruling to produce the documents, saying, “I’ve been working in this business as counsel for close to 13 years: I am not aware of any in-situ recovery license application and subsequent record of decision where an applicant or licensee was ever required to disclose every log they have, because it’s not necessary to make a licensing decision.”

However, he pledged to provide a report on options for making the e-logs available to the NRC and interveners. Some of the data are in print form and others are in a digital format. According to NRC staff counsel Michael Clark, reproducing them will be expensive.

Azarga offered $100,000 and gave 1.8 million of its common shares to Energy Fuels Resources (USA) Inc., for the historical drill-hole information, which Energy Fuels had obtained from the Tennessee Valley Authority following 1970s exploration of the site in Custer and Fall River counties adjacent to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The ASLB ruled that the information will remain under a protective order for business proprietary reasons, and therefore will not be accessible to the general public.

The testimony on water quantity and quality concerns Aug. 20, followed a day of evidence regarding cultural and historic preservation Aug. 19, and a day of public comment in Hot Springs on Aug. 18.

At a free concert and rally of project opponents on Aug. 17, Wild Horse Sanctuary founder Hyde told supporters, “The uranium industry doesn’t have a very good record of cleaning up, and one of the reasons is you can’t clean it up. You can’t dump all that water back into aquifer,” he said.

“I’ve got to worry about bringing in the clean water to some horses, but this polluted water is going to go all the way to New Orleans,” he warned.

At the public comment sessions, engineer Paul Nabholz, who said he drilled his own water well into the Inyan Kara Aquifer that Powertech Azarga would mine, noted that his family has lived in Fall River County for 25 years, and he supports the Powertech proposal for three reasons.

“First, largely due to the watchful eyes of environmentalists, Powertech will mine in a far safer manner than companies do in Third World countries,” Nabholz said. “Second, because we import 80 to 90 percent of our uranium, mining here supports our energy independence. Third, we need industries that provide good jobs for young men and women.”

He rejected the idea that “pure water will be destroyed,” pointing out that “the water at the mining location is generally not fit to drink today.” It is already contaminated with uranium, he observed, adding, “In the mining process, the water will be repeatedly recycled and finally injected into another aquifer or surface applied. Much of the surface-applied water will evaporate, and like that from our lakes and fields of corn, it will later fall as rain,” he said.

He was among less than 10 citizens who spoke in favor of the project during the comment sessions. More than 50 spoke against it.

Clean Water Alliance founder Lilias Jarding, an environmental policy expert from Rapid City, told the ASLB panel that the proposal lacks sound economic grounding because it includes a state application for 9,000 gallons of water per minute, allowing the applicant “to use substantially more groundwater than is used by Rapid City, the largest city in western South Dakota—with only one company directly benefitting.”

Dennis Yellow Thunder told the ASLB “It’s up to us to defend that water.” Photo by Christiane Lee

Oglala Lakota tribal member Dennis Yellow Thunder convinced the panelists to place their hands on their hearts to feel them beating and compared the blood flowing through them to the water coursing under the earth.

“We are very connected to the sacred water,” he said. “It’s up to us to defend that water. When you make your decision, feel that heartbeat,” he implored the judges: “Help us. Help us to survive.”

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

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