Environment | National

Native Sun News: Oglala Sioux Tribe contests uranium expansion

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

The Nichols Ranch in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin is the site of Energy Fuels Inc.’s uranium leaching operation. Photo by Talli Nauman

Oglala Sioux Tribe, Black Hills residents focus attention on foreign uranium mining concerns
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

CUSTER –– The Oglala Sioux Tribe contested foreign uranium mining expansion in Nebraska, and Canadian companies consolidated uranium holdings in Wyoming, while Black Hills residents organized an informational event Jan. 15 on Chinese investors’ proposed reopening of South Dakota uranium mines.

Azarga Uranium Corp., formerly Powertech Uranium Corp., seeks water rights and permits to conduct in-situ leach (ISL) mining and processing of yellow cake on the 10,580-acre Dewey-Burdock site located 50 miles west of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation at the headwaters of the Cheyenne River in the southern Black Hills.

“As a resident of Custer County, I have two major concerns about the proposed Dewey-Burdock in-situ uranium mining operation,” said Juli Ames-Curtis, a member of the Black Hills Chapter of the statewide grassroots non-profit Dakota Rural Action (DRA), which is hosting the event.

“First is the high volume water usage and second the likely contamination of our aquifers. If Azarga -- a Chinese company -- is granted water rights for this proposed mining operation, they will use up to 9,000 gallons of water per minute to extract uranium. This is more groundwater than Rapid City uses per minute on an average day.”

DRA’s Black Hills Chapter said expert speakers would address those concerns and others at the free public meeting set for 7 p.m. in the Pine Room of the Custer County Courthouse Annex, located at 447 Crook Street, Suite #1.

“When Azarga is finished mining, there are no guarantees the water we drink and use for agriculture and recreation will be clean. There has never been an in-situ mining operation that has left the area without polluting the water,” Ames-Curtis said.

Speakers slated for the event included research scientist Lilias Jarding, nuclear power consultant Ed Harvey, and Clean Water Alliance attorney Bruce Ellison.

Azarga’s Dewey-Burdock Project Manager Mark Hollenbeck told the Native Sun News that the company would consume only about 2 percent of the water rights it seeks from the Madison and Inyan Kara aquifers. The rest of the water would be treated to remove toxic heavy metals and sprayed on top of the ground with pivot irrigation or injected back underground, depending on permitting.

He said the water in the uranium mining area is already polluted anyway.

No permits have been granted by Custer County, the state of South Dakota, or the federal government in the nine-years that Dewey-Burdock mining proponents have been seeking them. Azarga’s predecessor Powertech asked the South Dakota State Department of Environment and Natural Resources for indefinite rights to the water.

Hearings are pending, and the DENR says that if the rights are granted, the governor’s appointed Board of Water and Natural Resources has the discretion to decide when or if the rights-holder must relinquish them.

Azarga is the smallest of the plethora of uranium exploration, development and mining companies with stakes in the Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska area, according to a chart released Jan. 8 by the Canada-based companies Energy Fuels Inc. and Uranerz Energy Corp.

“If Azarga receives the necessary operating permits, there are 10 other uranium companies that have expressed an interest in the Black Hills,” DRA’s local chapter noted.

On Jan. 7, Energy Fuels Inc. announced a merger with Uranerz Energy Corp., which began leaching uranium in July 2014, at the Nichols Ranch in the Powder River Basin, 60 miles south of Gillette, Wyoming.

The uranium goes to the nearby Smith Ranch ISL operation, for processing into yellow cake by Cameco Corp. All three companies are based in Canada.

Uranerz was formerly a property of the Cameco Corp., the world's largest publicly traded uranium company, based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Cameco operates Nebraska’s Crow Butte ISL project immediately south of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

On Jan. 5, the Oglala Sioux Tribe filed arguments against Crow Butte ISL expansion with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) Atomic Safety and Licensing Board. The tribe stated that the final environmental assessment for the proposal violates the National Environmental Policy Act.

“Substantial issues remain concerning undetermined impacts to the tribe’s cultural and historic resources, and the lack of information necessary to determine the hydrogeology and geochemistry of the site,” the tribe said.

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

Copyright permission Native Sun News

Join the Conversation