More than 20 Northern Plains tribes have cultural affiliation to the northern Black Hills sacred landmark of Mato Tipila, also known as Devils Tower, in sight of an Australian energy company’s Ross uranium and milling operation. Photo: National Park Service
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Native Sun News Today: Groups lose fight for water near sacred Mato Tipila

Conservation groups lose battle for groundwater near Mato Tipila

By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News Today
Health & Environment Editor

WASHINGTON – Conservation groups lost what they considered a battle for groundwater, land and cultural resources near Mato Tipila on January 19, when a federal appeals court here denied their pleadings over licensing of a uranium mine and mill in sight of the Native American sacred landmark in the northern Black Hills.

The U.S. Circuit Court in the District of Columbia decided that “there was no harm and no foul … and hence there is no point in remanding the matter,” as requested by the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council and the Powder River Basin Council.

In challenging the licensing procedure for Strata Energy Inc.’s in situ leach mining and uranium processing plant at the Ross operation in Crook County, Wyoming, the two plaintiff organizations relied on testimony from the Oglala Sioux Tribe to state their preliminary arguments.

The groups started lobbying for protection of cultural and water resources when the Australian-owned mining company applied for a license in 2011.

The testimony was originally submitted in the ongoing contested case about Powertech Azarga’s proposed uranium mine and mill at the southern Black Hills’ Dewey-Burdock Project site -- in which the tribe is one of many interveners.

It states that cultural surveys and analysis don’t meet legal obligations, tribes haven’t been consulted as required by law, baseline groundwater quantity and quality information is lacking, mitigation measures are inadequately described, and related cumulative impacts are not given enough consideration to comply with regulations.

In the Ross case, the circuit court decided that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had ruled correctly in upholding its Atomic Safety and Labor Board finding that the commission staff had taken effective steps for redressing deficiencies of the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the project through an amendment process.

“The procedure followed by the commission in this matter was not ideal, but there was no harm and no foul under either the National Environmental Protection Act or the Administrative Procedure Act, and hence there is no point in remanding the matter on that score,” the court said in rejecting the appeal.

Mato Tipila, a sacred site also known as Devils Tower, can be seen in the background of the Ross uranium mine in Wyoming. The facility had five license violations and non-compliance reports during its first year of operations. Photo: Peninsula Energy Ltd

The mining and milling at the Ross, located 20 miles north of Moorcroft near Oshoto, is continuing under a Programmatic Agreement, which allows development to proceed while consulting tribes are unready to decide how much cultural resource impact is at stake.

More than 20 Northern Plains tribes have cultural affiliation to Mato Tipila (aka Devils Tower) and its environs, according to historical documentation collected by the U.S. National Park Service, which has been in charge of administering the Native American sacred site since President Theodore Roosevelt declared the 1,267-foot volcanic rock monolith the country’s first national monument in 1906.

A slump in uranium prices prompted Strata Energy Inc.’s Australian parent company Peninsula Energy Ltd. to shelve plans for adding 8,000 acres in the Kendrick Expansion Area to the 1,700-acre Ross site in 2016.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has identified seven Kendrick area sites on which the agency has asked tribes for comment. The sites contain alignments of cairns, a ring of stones, a buffalo processing camp, buffalo bones, stone artifacts, and a metal projectile point.

Peninsula’s Managing Director and CEO Wayne Heili announced new plans on Jan. 15 for the Ross to switch from alkaline solution to sulfuric acid solution injections for dissolving the uranium in the aquifer.

“We are pleased to be producing at the high end of our 30,000 to 40,000 pounds U3O8 quarterly forecast range while we prepare to transition the project to what we anticipate will be a substantially more robust and sustainable commercial operation utilizing a lower pH mining solution,” he said.

The announcement comes on the heels of a white paper resulting from a study the company commissioned in 2017, which concludes that switching may increase the retrieval of uranium to 95 percent -- more than twice the amount currently being dissolved from the ore.

Tests also indicated “a reasonable assurance” that Strata Energy Inc. would be able to meet groundwater quality restoration targets after mining with the sulfuric acid, it said.

All the rest of the uranium leach mining in the United States uses solutions of alkaline compounds, such as carbon dioxide or bicarbonate to extract the mineral from the aquifers. However, the makeup of the rock in the Ross vicinity lends itself better to separation by acid-based leaching, the study noted.

Uranium mining in Australia and Kazakhstan, as well as Arizona copper mining, employs acid leaching. Wyoming has had several research-and-development pilot projects for the technique.

In Australia these operations sometimes struggle to remove gypsum buildups in production and restoration phases. In Kazakhstan, no attempt is made to restore water quality after the mining.

Strata Energy Inc. will have to redo its paperwork to comply with state and federal law when it modifies its system. That will present members of the public opportunities to request comment periods and provide input, the white paper said.

The company also will need safeguards for delivery of sulfuric acid, it said. However, it mentioned, “many of the standard operating procedures for safe transportation and use of low pH reagents are already in place” at the Ross.

Sulfuric acid is a toxic chemical that burns skin on contact; its fumes are noxious and flammable. Transportation accidents are commonplace, according to the chemical industry.

In the most recent U.S. incident December 28, the brakes locked and set fire to a tanker truck hauling sulfuric acid northbound from the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge, forcing a shutdown of the road for fire fighters to respond, according to the independent source Sulphuric Acid on the Web TM.

The Ross has experienced the following mine-water solution incidents since its first year of operations, which began in 2015, according to federal regulators:

• Aug. 9, 2017: 4,316-gallon spill of injection fluid
• July 27, 2017: 10,008-gallon spill of injection fluid
• May 25, 2017: 800-gallon spill of injection fluid
• Feb. 28, 2017: Samples taken from Pond 1 Monitor Well in exceedance of limits
• Oct. 11, 2016: 1,000-gallon spill of injection solution
• July 19, 2016: 1,620 gallon spill of retention pond water
• June 1, 2016: 500 - 600 gallon spill of recovery solution
• April 27, 2016: Pond monitor well indicated release from Pond 1, however, Strata Energy Inc. said the exceedance was likely a result of natural variation in shallow groundwater quality
• March 3, 2016: 1,200 gallon spill of waste water.

D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
Natural Resources Defense Council v. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (January 19, 2018)


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