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Native Sun News: Tribal college geologist tackles uranium mine

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

This abandoned uranium mine in the Black Hills National Forest was cleaned up with Superfund money. EPA is assessing the need for more cleanup at proposed Dewey-Burdock site. Photo from U.S. Forest Service

Oglala Lakota College geologist confirms water problems in proposed Black Hills uranium mining
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

KYLE –– Uranium mining in the southern Black Hills compromises water supplies, according to expert testimony by Oglala Lakota College Department Co-Chair Hannan LaGarry, released Jan. 12 in response to a federal administrative order.

Azarga Uranium Corp., formerly Powertech Uranium Corp., sought unsuccessfully to keep the testimony from the public in the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s challenge of the company’s proposal to reopen uranium mines and mills at the Dewey-Burdock site in Custer and Fall River counties adjacent to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB), which is reviewing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff decision to grant Azarga an operating license, demanded the disclosure.

After studying “numerous records of open holes, artesian water, faults, and sinkholes,” LaGarry said, “In my expert opinion, artesian flow demonstrates a lack of containment at the site and poses a significant risk of unexpected, serious contamination of the Cheyenne River and its tributaries, faults and sinkholes.”

Artesian flow occurs when natural pressure exerted by waters at higher elevations cause connected waters in lower strata to travel to the surface. The Cheyenne River headwaters drain the Dewey-Burdock site, and the river then passes through the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River Indian reservations on its way to the Missouri River, a source of drinking water for them.

Azarga is seeking water rights permits to 9,000 gallons per minute of the Madison and Inyan Kara aquifers to conduct in-situ leach (ISL) mining at the 10,580-acre site 50 miles west of the Pine Ridge Reservation. If the project proceeds, it would become the first experience with the technique for the state of South Dakota and for the company. However, ISL already is being conducted in Wyoming and Nebraska.

The method requires extraction of water from the aquifer; injection with acid into the ore body; suspension of the uranium, vanadium and heavy metals; extraction of the mineral in solution; concentration of the uranium into yellow cake; shipping the pay dirt in drums to refineries and the toxic waste to disposal sites; water cleanup; return of the unused water to the surface or underground, and monitoring for pollution excursions.

The U.S. EPA is slated to make rule changes before the end of January to strengthen groundwater protections for ISL mining, since most of the pertinent standards for protection were developed considering only old-fashioned conventional open-pit and underground uranium mining.

“We propose to review the standards in the existing rule and to revise the regulations, taking into particular account the significant changes in uranium industry extraction technologies and their potential impacts to groundwater,” the EPA said in announcing the potential changes.

“This rulemaking involves a topic that is likely to be of particular interest to or have particular impact upon minority, low-income, tribal, and/or other vulnerable populations,” it said.

LaGarry and his students examined drillers’ notes from 4,177 Dewey-Burdock boreholes, at least 56 percent of the available data, and a sufficiently large sample to reasonably reflect the geological conditions in the area of the challenged license, he said.

“In contrast,” he said, “The NRC review of 34 boreholes constitutes less than 1 percent of the available data, grossly misrepresents the sample, and is not scientifically valid or useful in any meaningful way.”

Hannan E. LaGarry. Photo from Oglala Lakota College

The data available to LaGarry was much more than the NRC staff had to go on. After the project proponent received staff approval of its license, it purchased more data.

After interveners convinced the authorities to strike down the company’s demand for secrecy of the new data, LaGarry’s job consisted of perusing paper files contained in 28 bankers’ boxes, five file cabinets, and 31 sets of mini logs (reduced to about one tenth of full-sized logs).

The papers offered documentation of 140 open, uncased drill holes; 16 previously cased, re-drilled open holes; four instances of artesian water; 13 holes plugged with wooden fence posts; six holes plugged with broken steel; 12 records of faults within or beside drilled holes; one drawing of two faults and a sink hole within a drilled transect; seven notations of “do not record this value on drill hole maps”; two notations of “do not return this to landowner” and 63 redacted borehole logs.

“Many notes contained references to water at various levels and poor, muddy, or destroyed samples. We also found that, in the data sets we reviewed, blocks of records had been moved or were missing,” said LaGarry, who is a PhD in Geology and co-chair the Math, Science and Technology Department.

Casing of boreholes prevents the unwanted migration, transfer, and cross-contamination of water within them. Uncased holes allow unrestricted communication between water-bearing strata at the site, he said.

Each uncased hole is a breach of the confining layers assumed to restrict the movement of mining fluids and contaminants. Re-drilling of previously cased holes destroys the pre-existing casing and returns the borehole to the open, uncased condition, he said.

“In my expert opinion, while it is possible that confinement may yet exist in undrilled areas, there is no reasonable expectation that confinement remains in drilled areas,” he concluded.

The presence of artesian water “clearly demonstrates … communication of water between the aquifers onsite and offsite,” he said. This “greatly increases the likelihood of large amounts of highly contaminated subsurface water reaching the surface and contaminating it.”

During hearings before the ASLB in August, Powertech asserted that faults and sinkholes were not present in the license area.

However, LaGarry said he found “numerous faults present.”

He said drillers’ notes to withhold data implied “an attempt to deceive somebody about the character of particular boreholes. The possible motivation for withholding the data was not clear from our limited review in these instances,” he said.

“More troubling is the deliberate masking (redaction) of borehole log data. This information may not be recoverable without additional drilling adjacent to the original borehole, and is clear evidence that information was withheld for some reason,” he added.

Advocates for Azarga had also tried unsuccessfully to convince the ASLB to refuse to provide the information LaGarry analyzed, but the tribe and other interveners challenging the license’s validity prevailed in gaining its release.

The information about the presence of water at various levels in the drill holes suggests “unrestricted flow between water-bearing strata at the site,” LaGarry said.

An EPA preliminary assessment in September of the existing uranium excavations at Dewey-Burdock resulted in a recommendation for a site investigation “to determine if hazardous substance releases from the abandoned mines are impacting sensitive environments.”

The EPA plans to conduct this investigation in 2015. The non-profit Institute of Range and the American Mustang sparked the preliminary assessment with a citizen’s petition raising concerns that releases from the mines already are impacting the land and water or jeopardizing public health.

The assessment, conducted in accord with the so-called Superfund Act found: “Surface soils near the on-site waste piles contain levels of radionuclides above health-based standards and are three times higher than background levels.”

Water samples from impoundments contained uranium, radium, thorium and lead, it said. Two domestic wells near the site contain levels of radium-226 that exceed the drinking water standard. One of these wells also has uranium levels that exceed the drinking water standard.

The elevated levels of radionuclides “may pose a risk to nearby residents and workers,” EPA said.

Geologist LaGarry also submitted supplemental expert opinion to the NRC panel to back the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s administrative case against Canadian Cameco Corp.’s Crow Butte ISL project immediately south of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Nebraska.

His testimony upholds the tribe’s allegation that the environmental assessment for expansion there lacks “a defensible baseline ground water characterization.”

Even if that were not so, the tribe said in a Jan. 5 submission to the ASLB: “The Crow Butte commercial uranium milling facility is located on lands belonging to the sovereign Oglala Sioux Tribe and its people as part of its ‘unceded’ territory secured by treaty, and not within the territory or on lands of the United States or any of its subdivisions by which the NRC may exercise any lawful jurisdiction.

“The natural resources that Crow Butte seeks a license from the NRC to continue to exploit, degrade, and destroy for private profit also belong to the Oglala Sioux Tribe and its people,” the tribe’s filing states, citing the 1851 and 1868 Ft. Laramie treaties.

What’s more, the tribe said, government-to-government consultation between the United States and the tribe was not adequate, under the National Historic Preservation Act, to address cultural assets affected by the proposal.

The tribe said that assessment to date also lacks “a thorough review of the natural and manmade interconnections between aquifers in the area that may allow for cross-contamination with the aquifer slated for chemical mining.” Additionally, the documentation lacks “the required analysis of proposed mitigation measures.”

LaGarry explained that “during the course of its operation, the Crow Butte Resources ISL Uranium Mine will most likely contaminate the region with unconfined lixiviate.

“This contamination will pollute and render unusable ground and surface water southwards into Nebraska, and surface waters within the White River drainage northeastwards into greater South Dakota,” he noted.

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

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