The Black Hills
It seems like we hear about climate change a lot these days, also referred to as the climate crisis. There are some “experts” who don’t think climate change is related to mining in the Black Hills. They only think about urban impacts or global impacts – and either way, we get left out. So here is an addition to the discussion — an explanation of the links that connect climate change and mining issues in the Black Hills.
First and of course, no place is immune from the impacts (which are already being felt) of our warming earth and the resulting changes in climate. Some people think that, if we have a particularly cold winter, there’s no climate change. But heat isn’t the whole story. More severe weather is a result of climate change – more stronger hurricanes, droughts and floods, hotter summers, and yes – colder winters.
In western South Dakota, some of the predicted — and developing — impacts from climate change include:
- more drought
- less snow in the Black Hills – impacting winter sports and water supply
- snow melting faster in the Spring (think floods)
- less rain and hotter days in the later summer – particularly impacting agriculture
- more extreme weather
So all of us have a stake in taking action to slow climate change.
The Black Hills are particularly important because of their unique location surrounded by the Great Plains. But this isn’t just because they’re a tourist mecca or because they’re beautiful. The Black Hills are the headwaters for both surface and ground water for a multi-state area. Because they are higher than the surrounding area, the Black Hills capture rainfall and snow. Because of their geological characteristics, they are a major collector of ground water. That groundwater serves an area from Canada in the north, to all of the Dakotas, to parts of Montana and Wyoming in the west.
Most of the remaining surface water eventually runs east. This water serves much of western South Dakota. It also provides water to a good portion of the eastern part of the state, which pumps water from the Missouri River for municipal, rural water, and agricultural purposes.
The increasing drought associated with climate change will lead to more competition for water. Some of this competition will continue to be among tribal, municipal, agricultural, and outdoor recreation interests. But what happens if we throw a uranium mine into the mix that uses over 9,000 gallons of water per minute for 15 or 20 years? That is what is proposed for Custer and Fall River Counties.
And that is just one mine. There are at least a half dozen gold companies looking for the “next Homestake” in the Black Hills. As of August 3, 2022, about 202,000 acres of the Black Hills were under active mining claims. Even if just a couple of those companies start mining, we’re talking millions of gallons of water per year that could be diverted from other uses. Bottom line – adding new large-scale mining to the mix means increased competition for water and, in an era of climate change, increased competition for less water.
Any land or natural resource issue in the Black Hills is an environmental justice issue. And climate change is no exception. This is because climate change in the Black Hills impacts some people – mostly indigenous and/or low-income people – more than it impacts other people – mostly white and/or higher-income people.
This difference is a result of a variety of factors. These include the fact that the Black Hills are Lakota (Sioux) treaty homelands, lands from which Lakota people were driven as a result of gold mining in the 1870s. The relationship between mining and environmental injustice has been around for several generations here. New large-scale mining would destroy the land and water in areas that Lakota people have worked to protect since time immemorial.
The increase in drought from climate change and the threats to water quality and quantity, if we end up with new large-scale mining, would interact to create climate justice issues. When mining led to water quality and quantity issues, people with more money could buy water filters or filtered water. People who had less money would have less access to clean water. So climate change would interact with mining to threaten the health and general well-being of low-income people.
Mining interacts with climate issues in some other specific ways. While many discussions of climate change focus on automobiles and urban impacts, mining generally takes place in rural areas and is a significant contributor to climate change. Depending on how it is defined and who is doing the counting, mining contributes between 10% and 35% of total greenhouse gases worldwide. This is because it includes a lot of heavy machinery (drills, bulldozers, huge trucks, strip mining equipment, etc.) and transportation. For open pit mining, it also involves removing topsoil and plants, leaving barren ground with less ability to buffer climate change.
Anything we can do to avoid, recycle, or replace items made with mined materials helps mitigate climate change.
Mining also has specific characteristics that raise the threat level. Climate change increases the likelihood of flooding, and a flood can overwhelm protective measures at mine sites and wash toxic and radioactive mining fluids, soil and dirt, and liquid and solid wastes into streams that had been clean.
We already have floods in the area. In 2012, a flood at the site of the proposed Dewey-Burdock uranium mining project in the southwestern Black Hills washed a locomotive and 35 train cars off the tracks. What would have happened if the mine had been operating – barrels of radioactive yellowcake uranium floating around? In 1972, a flood tore through central Rapid City, killing over 200 people, a high percentage of them low-income and/or indigenous. So increased flooding due to climate change is a real and dangerous probability here.
The negative economic impacts from increased flooding would be more than the cost of rebuilding. Some of the streams in the Black Hills are so clean that they are blue-ribbon trout fisheries. One of these, Rapid Creek, has two gold companies exploring in its watershed. The area is also a hub of water recreation – boats, paddleboards, swimming, tourism, fishing, and shoreside enjoyment. Without clean water, this economic activity would either be minimized or go away. So increased flooding as a result of climate change – and mine-related flooding specifically – pose threats to the area’s economic life.
Mining has important, worldwide climate change and climate justice impacts. The Black Hills are at least as heavily affected as other areas, with some unique characteristics that magnify the impacts.
Building a “Green” Energy System
Slowing or stopping climate change and addressing climate justice issues would require change. Some people talk about building a “green” energy system as a way to combat climate change, and to some extent they’re right. We need to move to more renewable energy systems. But most people either don’t think things through, aren’t aware of the impacts this would have in rural areas, or believe well-funded and self-serving industry marketing campaigns.
Let’s start with the well-funded and self-serving industry marketing campaigns. One of these has been the nuclear industry’s attempt to sell itself as a solution to climate change. The campaigns trumpet nuclear power as “carbon free,” which isn’t true, and have even won over some environmentalists.
We are an area with a history of uranium mining, including almost three hundred abandoned mines and prospects that have not been cleaned up for as many as 70 years, and that are leaching radioactive materials into our waterways. So we are conscious not only of the dangers of nuclear power plants, but of the dangers of the “front end” of the nuclear chain. This is an environmental justice issue, as the thousands of old uranium mines are mostly in rural areas of the West, with a high proportion on or near Indian reservations or treaty-protected indigenous lands, like the Black Hills.
Besides the carbon emissions from mining uranium — discussed above — the nuclear chain includes long-distance transportation, exploration, several stages of high-electricity enrichment, the manufacture of fuel rods, the building and decommissioning of large power plants, and the still-unresolved disposal of nuclear wastes. Each of these activities also creates carbon emissions.
In addition, nuclear power is not a good solution to the climate crisis specifically because it is a crisis – it requires immediate solutions. It takes a decade or more to build a nuclear power plant, if you can afford the multi-billion-dollar cost, and we’d have to build a lot of them to solve climate change. Smaller nuclear plants aren’t a solution to the crisis either. They haven’t even made it off the drawing board, much less through a decade-long approval process and construction. And concentrated nuclear materials always mean the risk of catastrophic accidents or intentional terrorist attacks.
In the Black Hills, we are also conscious of campaigns to “greenwash” mining. Companies are using wording like “green mining” and “responsible mining” – as well as corporate presentations [F3 Gold’s Propaganda] to make it sound as if mining is sometimes positive for the environment. Mining is never “green” or “responsible” – it always involves contamination and destruction of water, air, and landscapes for a few people’s profits. Our goals should be to reduce the use of mined materials and to seek ways to recycle and replace those materials.
These efforts, coupled with wildly optimistic claims of riches, have brought many mining companies to the Black Hills. A decade ago, there were 11 companies that had expressed an interest in uranium in the Black Hills. Now there are four. At least six gold companies have substantial mining claims in the Black Hills currently.
There is also one rare earths mining project in the northwestern Black Hills and three lithium mining projects in the central Black Hills, and these are particularly closely linked to climate change. Rare earths are a group of minerals that are heavily used in high-technology applications, including wind generators, cell phones, military equipment, and – like lithium — batteries. The United States government and companies are currently putting a lot of effort into developing rare earths and lithium mines due to the minerals’ “green” energy applications. We need to keep speaking out for our rural areas and let people know that lithium and rare earths mining and processing involve large amounts of toxic chemicals, carbon emissions, and – in the case of rare earths — radioactive wastes.
The survival of the Black Hills as a living natural, human, cultural, and economic society depends on taking action against climate injustices.
Efforts to combat climate change are wreaking havoc on rural lands and increasing the competition for decreasing amounts of water. This is a climate justice issue that favors one location over others. Add the high poverty rates in many rural areas and the presence of tribal lands, and it’s clear that current efforts to slow or stop climate change favor some people over others. Climate justice requires, first, recognition of current inequities and, second, taking action in all sectors of society and in all sectors of the economy to combat both climate change and climate injustice. The survival of the Black Hills as a living natural, human, cultural, and economic society depends on it.