Native Sun News: Oglala Sioux woman witnesses chemical spill

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

A hazmat truck makes a turn at the intersection of Highway 20 and Main St. in Chadron, Nebraska. Photo by Nancy Kile

Concert features witness to toxic spill at uranium mine near Pine Ridge Reservation
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

RAPID CITY –– When Nancy Kile saw the hazmat truck heading to the Chadron waste collection site, she all but panicked, dreading that the driver would dump its load of chemically contaminated soil at the place where she obtains compost to enrich her garden.

The Chadron waste collection site has been producing nutrient-laden compost from grass clippings and leaves for free distribution to customers since 1992, in what the Solid Waste Agency of Northwest Nebraska, or SWANN, calls “one of our most successful recycling programs.”

Kile, a Crawford, Nebraska native and enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said “the idea of that soil being dumped there bugged me because I get my compost there.”

She followed the trail of the hazardous waste unleashed in the uranium mining and processing town of Crawford and now is set to tell the tale of what she discovered –– as part of a free Benefit Concert for the Black Hills to celebrate World Water Day March 22 at the Dahl Arts Center in Rapid City.

The Canadian-owned Cameco Corp. has been mining and milling uranium for nuclear power at its Crow Butte Resources site two miles from her home town since 1991. The company is seeking license renewal and permits to expand at two other mining sites, one 30 miles southeast of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and the other located between Crawford and Pine Ridge.

Cameco is the largest uranium producer in the United States. Its mines in Nebraska and Wyoming provide more than half of domestically produced uranium used to generate electricity at nuclear power plants.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe is contesting Cameco’s application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for license renewal and mine expansion at Crow Butte. The tribe has argued that the in-situ leach (ISL) uranium recovery project is on tribal 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.”

Hazmat crews left materials at the spill site after spreading sodium bicarbonate on the hydrochloric acid to help neutralize it and building berms to prevent the toxic uranium mining chemical from spreading. Photo by Nancy Kile

A tractor-trailer delivering hydrochloric acid to the Crow Butte uranium mining and milling site just south of Crawford went off the road, spilling the chemical in early February.

The accident led to road-closure, evacuation and cleanup by first-responders, including the Nebraska State Patrol, Dawes County Sherriff and fire departments, as well as other members of the Nebraska Hazardous Incident Team.

Crow Butte and other in-situ leach uranium mining and milling plants mix hydrochloric acid with ammonia to precipitate uranium from solution in which it is dissolve, so it can be concentrated into a radioactive powder known as yellow cake, which is then shipped to processing facilities

When spilled, hydrochloric acid forms a mist that can have an erosive effect on human skin, eyes and other organs, according to the Nebraska Hazardous Materials Association.

Kile documented the spill and later, on Feb. 10, followed the hazmat truck to the Chadron waste collection site. There she spoke with personnel, whose answers to her questions revealed that the truck was only weighing its load before proceeding to deposit it at a landfill further north in Dawes County, she said.

“SWANN cannot accept liquids or hazardous materials,” says the agency of local government sanitation operators. “This would be in violation of Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (NDEQ) regulations,” SWANN says.

The landfill 15 miles north of Chadron on Highway 385, does not, however, have a lining, according to what personnel explained to Kile. The explanation was that the Ogallala Aquifer is 900 feet below the facility, making it deep enough to exempt SWANN from lining the pit, she said.

According to the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, radioactive mine and mill waste from Crow Butte, such as filters, which cannot be deposited in the Dawes County landfill, are shipped to another storage and mill site in Blanding, Utah.

Two people at the Crow Butte facility are in charge of recording the radioactive properties of the filters and packaging them in so-called “super sacks” to transport them from Nebraska to Utah, the NDEQ told Kile.

The White Mesa Mill south of Blanding recycles radioactive waste to make yellow cake for sale to government utilities and other customers, in a taxpayer subsidized arrangement that has drawn a lawsuit from the Grand Canyon Trust.

Kile warned that proposals for more uranium mining and milling in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation area would create conditions for more accidents like the hydrochloric acid spill at Crow Butte.

“This industry has groomed my hometown, encompassed it, and now look at it,” she said. “When you continue to support in-situ leach mining without being fully aware of what it’s doing to the soils and to the water, then it just seems like a slow suicide to me.”

Azarga Uranium Corp., formerly Powertech Uranium Corp., is seeking NRC licensing and EPA water rights to conduct in-situ leach (ISL) mining at the 10,580-acre site 50 miles west of the Pine Ridge Reservation in the Black Hills.

Azarga’s proposal is the first for in-situ leach mining in the state of South Dakota. The company, with most of its holdings in China, wants rights to 9,000 gallons per minute of the Madison and Inyan Kara aquifers.

Caution should be exercised in the permitting, because Azarga is a foreign company, according to concert speaker Tatyana Novikova.

“Experience proves that the transnational uranium mining business is not environmentally responsible, and its deadly results are evident in water, soil and air contamination," Novikova said.

“Local citizens have to use all the opportunities available to prevent transnational mining business, because the consequences of uranium extraction could last the hundreds of years,” she said.

Dr. Lilias Jarding, founder of the Rapid City-based Clean Water Alliance and associate professor at Oglala Lakota College, will explain the ISL technique at the benefit concert, as well as opportunities for public participation in the permitting process. The EPA is slated to make rule changes 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.

“It is critical that everyone who is against this mine gets involved in the decision-making process. Your voice matters. Your time matters. Your money matters,” Jarding said in announcing the concert. “The water cannot speak for itself –– we must speak for the water."

The EPA is taking comments until April 27 on the proposed rule on groundwater protection standards for uranium in situ leach mining.

Renewable energy sources are an alternative to nuclear power, which fuels the demand for uranium mining, according to concert speaker Dr. Don Kelley.

“When told that uranium mining and nuclear power plants are essential for the transition away from fossil fuels, remember that this belief is heavily promoted by big mining and energy interests,” Kelley said.

“Realistic studies are showing that with commercially available renewable-energy technologies, 80-100 percent of U.S. electricity needs can be met by 2050,” Kelley said.

Kelley is a member of the South Dakota State Medical Association, whose governing council voted unanimously to oppose Black Hills uranium mining. Among its reasons:
• The “real possibility of underground water-supply contamination with radionuclides and other heavy metals exists” due to potential communication between the mined Inyan Kara aquifer and other aquifers.
• Records of other ISL uranium mines detailing “frequent unanticipated consequences due to leaks and excursions of mining fluids.”
• The acceptance by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission that “the restoration of an ISL-mined aquifer to pre-mining water quality is … impossibility.”

For renewables to outpace nuclear energy, “what's needed is grassroots activism and political leadership,” Kelley said.

The concert begins at 1 p.m. with original folk music from the heart of the Black Hills by singer-songwriter and music critic Steve Thorpe.

The Hill City Slickers will offer acoustic instruments and vocal harmonies, performing selections from their repertoire of folk, bluegrass, and western music, as well as gospel, original compositions, and favorites from the 50s and 60s.

James Van Nuys is set to play numbers from a broad variety of original and traditional folk, blues, Irish and ragtime tunes that have earned him recognition as the Black Hills’ premier guitar finger-picker.

Darren Thompson brings his Ojibway flute music from the Lac du Flambeau Nation in Wisconsin to Rapid City on a three-month tour and series of recording sessions for his second album.

Admission to the event is free and includes the opportunity to take part in a silent auction concluding at 4:30 p.m. Breadroot Natural Foods Coop is making healthy snacks and beverages available.

Sponsors are Dakota Rural Action, a statewide non-profit engaged in protection of local resources, and Clean Water Alliance, a group dedicated to preventing uranium mining in the Black Hills area.

(Contact Talli Nauman, Health and Environment Editor for Native Sun News at

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