A tragedy is playing out across Native-American lands, where large corporations pollute local waters, caring little for indigenous people. In the following case a Canadian uranium mining outfit, PowerTech, stands accused of polluting the Black Hills region of South Dakota.

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Rapid City drafts opposition to Black Hills uranium mining

August 11, 2013 7:00 am • John Lee McLaughlin

The Rapid City Council is preparing to join the ranchers, Native Americans and environmentalists who are worried about a proposed uranium mining project in the southwestern corner of the state.

Mayor Sam Kooiker said the city’s concerns revolve around a Canadian company’s plans to use the in-situ mining process, which would use water from the Inyan Kara Aquifer and the Madison Aquifer, which supplies Rapid City with more than half of its supply.

The company, Powertech, has applied for water rights that would allow it to use 170 gallons a minute to extract the uranium while trying to reassure opponents of the Dewey-Burdock project that its mining process poses no threat to local water supplies.

Kooiker said opponents have legitimate concerns about the in-situ mining process and its potential impact on the water supply.

People who are expressing concerns on this proposal are unfortunately being portrayed as wild-eyed tree huggers, but what they’re trying to do is simply get answers on how this proposal will affect our water supply,” he said. “I think it’s reasonable to ask that the (state’s) second largest city’s water supply won’t be negatively affected by this proposal.”

Kooiker and council member Jerry Wright have written letters to the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources seeking an official assurance that the city’s water supply wouldn’t be affected.

“I can’t speak for the council but for me, I want facts,” Kooiker said.

City Council members are on the same page, however. On Monday, they voted unanimously to have city staff draft a resolution that opposes the project.

Critical water source

Water Division superintendent John Wagner said that in 2012 the Madison Aquifer provided Rapid City with more than 2.6 billion gallons of water, or 66 percent of the city’s total water supply.

It’s those kind of numbers that concern Kooiker.

“We’re hoping to get the attention of DENR, and we hope that they will ensure due diligence is done to protect the region’s water supply and as one of the largest users of water in this region, Rapid City has an interest in this application,” Kooiker said. “DENR and the applicants have a responsibility to prove our water supply will not be negatively affected in any way.”

Kooiker is also concerned that a layer of regulatory oversight was removed by the state Legislature in 2011 when it approved legislation pushed by Powertech to suspend the state’s permitting of in-situ mining. Powertech said the state permit duplicated a federal in-situ permit that it is currently seeking.

Previously, Powertech would have been required to get a state in-situ permit as well.

Primary oversight of the proposed uranium mine will come from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency. South Dakota, however, retains the authority to approve or deny Powertech’s application for two water rights, a groundwater discharge plan and a large-scale mining permit dealing primarily with surface disturbance.

The state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources staff has recommended approval of Powertech’s water rights. The staff also has recommended conditional approval of the mining permit.

But the ultimate decision at the state level belongs to two citizens boards that regulate mining and water rights issues.

A multi-day hearing before the state Board of Minerals and Environment on Powertech’s large-scale mine application begins Sept. 23 at the Best Western Ramkota Hotel & Convention Center in Rapid City. A separate hearing on the water rights application before the state Board of Water Management begins Oct. 7 at the same location.

Wright said if there’s any doubt that the mine would have an harmful impact, water rights for the mine simply shouldn’t be approved.

“Concerns have been expressed about the environment, and I think when there are that many concerns, we need to look and say ‘Hey, we need to be careful,’” he said. “I would say if there’s doubt in anyone’s mine — anyone’s mind — don’t do it.”

In-situ mining

Powertech’s Dewey Burdock mine would sit within a 11,000-acre tract northwest of Edgemont, but the actual mining area covers 150 acres, according to its local spokesman, Mark Hollenbeck.

Hollenbeck, a former Edgemont mayor and past state legislator, said uranium would be extracted from the mine using oxygen-rich water. Added oxygen acts similar to a magnet, drawing out uranium deposits.

“We are mimicking nature in the way we take it out,” he said.

Hollenbeck said a series of wells would be dug about 70 to 100 feet apart within a uranium-rich “belt” of the Inyan Kara Aquifer. Well depth would range from 200 to 800 feet, according to Powertech.

Oxygenated water is essentially pumped from well to well within the uranium belt. Roughly half of the wells inject water, with the remainder of the wells extracting what becomes a solution that’s laden with heavy metals, most of which is uranium.

That solution feeds into a central pipeline to an above-ground processing center where “yellow cake” uranium oxide is extracted. The end product is transported to an enrichment facility and then placed in fuel rods for nuclear energy generation.

Radioactive fears

Fears over the Dewey Burdock mine center on the amount of water the operation would use, the potential for water and land contamination and the impact that contamination could have on Black Hills tourism.

At 170 gallons a minute, the mine would use around 250,000 gallons a day, which is more than 89 million gallons annually from the Inyan Kara and Madison aquifers. Rapid City used more about 4.4 billion gallons of water in 2012, according to city officials.

Most of the water would come from the lower-quality Inyan Kara Aquifer. And most used in the in-situ process would be recycled and used again.

Dakota Rural Action, a non-profit group based in Brookings, is among the groups that oppose the mine.

“Water is such a precious resource these days, and they’re not going to pay a dime for it,” said Clay Uptain, chair of the Black Hills chapter of the organization.

Uptain said that a safe in-situ uranium mining operation doesn’t exist.

“The water they inject will disturb the aquifers,” Uptain said. “They’re going to be injecting all of this water full of chemicals at very high pressures deep into the ground. The reality is that nobody can predict what’s going to happen.”

Uptain also exemplified the failures of other regional in-situ mining operations, such as Crow Butte in Crawford, Neb., where violations for leaking holding ponds and well piping have been issued.

“Our position is that the potential costs far outweigh the potential benefits,” he said. “We certainly can’t guarantee there will be a problem, but they also can’t guarantee there is not going to be a problem.”

Uptain said more than 500 exploratory drill holes exist at the proposed mine site and only more would come if the mine is approved. Uptain said more wells increase the chance for contamination.

He said the mine would also flank the Cheyenne River. Uptain said that opens up the possibility for contaminants to flow into Pine Ridge, where reservation residents already worry about past issues with radiation.

“This is just crazy to be doing this uranium mining right next to the Cheyenne River.” Uptain said.

The group has been collecting signatures to present to the state tourism board. Uptain said more than 1,300 signatures have been collected.

“We think there is a real possibility that when uranium contamination occurs, and it definitely will, it will adversely affect tourism in the Black Hills,” he said. “It’s not worth the risks. Uranium contamination is forever — forever.”

The group will present its signatures to the tourism board before Powertech’s water rights hearings start in September.

Concerns downplayed

Hollenbeck said fears over the amount of water the operation would use remain illegitimate.

“The anti-nuclear folks are trying their darndest to misrepresent our water consumption.” he said. “They’re ignoring that water is being recycled.”

Hollenbeck said about 98 percent of the operation’s water will be recirculated into the aquifer after being treated for a total of 5,000 gallons daily that’s actually consumed.

“All of our water studies have shown that there is ample water to supply our needs,” he said, adding that other water rights and wells wouldn’t be affected.

Hollenbeck said contamination worries are also unwarranted.

“That was a concern on mining when I started working here,” he said. “That just does not happen.”

The recycled water would be “returned to a quality as close to pre-mining conditions as can practically be achieved,” according to Powertech.

Hollenbeck said uranium is only released in an oxygen-rich environment, such as during in-situ mining. He said uranium that isn’t extracted would remain trapped below ground by surrounding bedrock, which is oxygen deficient.

Other toxic metals, like radium, and other by-products would be removed and shipped offsite for proper disposal, according to Powertech. The company also said leaching chemicals wouldn’t be used in the mining process; only water, oxygen and carbon dioxide.

As for the economy, Hollenbeck said there would only be a positive impact.

“Projects that produce $40 million worth of economic development in western South Dakota don’t come along every day,” he said. “Most of that would be funneled through Rapid City.”

He said Powertech has already invested heavily in Rapid City on contractors and equipment, and that the mine’s piping would come from the city’s WL Plastics when it opens.

Hollenbeck pointed to regional in-situ mining operation in the light of success.

“This isn’t a new technology.” he said. “This isn’t a new idea. This has been going on for an extended amount of time.”

source: Rapid City Journal
PowerTech uranium mining operations in the Black Hills on ClimateViewer 3D
PowerTech uranium mining operations in the Black Hills on ClimateViewer 3D

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