A struggle over a proposed uranium mine in the Black Hills of South Dakota
— far from population centers — illuminates important aspects of water issues, Native American rights, deep disposal wells, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) role, and the legal issues swirling around them all. Uranium mining is an issue of national importance, because it is the first step in the nuclear chain. Without uranium mining, there could be no nuclear power or nuclear weapons. But the issues start with water.
The Black Hills are a beautiful and unique area in the middle of the northern Great Plains, characterized by pine-covered hills, dramatic rock outcrops, and fresh water that flows into underground aquifers to recharge groundwater across the region. The Black Hills are subject to treaties between the Lakota (Sioux) people and the United States that reserved control of the Hills to the Lakota.
In a classic case of environmental injustice, this promise has not been kept. But the Lakota maintain a strong legal, traditional, and spiritual link to the Black Hills.
The Black Hills are probably best known today as the home of Mount Rushmore and the Sturgis motorcycle rally. Most tourists today don’t know that the area experienced uranium mining and milling in the 1950s to early 1970s. This left 169 abandoned mines and prospects and a trail of contaminated land and water to the south and west of Mount Rushmore. In the late 1970s, determined and diverse citizen opposition — and eventually a drop in the price of uranium — held off that wave of uranium fever.
In the mid-2000s, there was again a boom in uranium exploration, as the price of a pound of yellowcake (minimally processed uranium) jumped to $138 from a low of $7. Eleven companies expressed an interest in Black Hills uranium. One, Powertech Uranium, is the focus of — again — determined and diverse citizen opposition. It is also the subject of a pending Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) action that should concern people across the United States.
THE POWERTECH PROJECT
The proposed Powertech Uranium project is located in Custer and Fall River Counties. It is known as the Dewey- Burdock project, and the site is over 10,000 acres, or about half the size of Manhattan.
The company proposes to mine uranium using the “in situ” leach (ISL) mining method. In order for ISL mining to work, the uranium must be located directly in an underground aquifer. The method involves pumping a solution underground through wells. The solution is forced through a uranium deposit and leaches the uranium out of the rock. The solution is then pumped back to the surface, and the uranium is removed for further processing.
Powertech, which has never mined uranium, proposes to drill 4,000 wells into an aquifer that is used for domestic water and livestock. The project would use 9,000 gallons of water per minute, 1/3 larger than the amount of groundwater used by nearby Rapid City, the second- largest town in the state. It also plans to pump its wastewater into another aquifer that is used by area residents through four deep disposal wells. If it fails to get permission for deep disposal wells, it plans to spray its wastewater on the surface of the ground, covering 1,052 acres. All told, the project would impact water from 3 of the 4 major drinking water aquifers in the Black Hills, a semi-arid area that relies on groundwater.
Resistance to the project includes the City Council of Rapid City. It also includes the South Dakota State Medical Association, which passed a resolution against the proposed mine in 2013. The Oglala Sioux Tribe has taken leadership in fighting the proposal, and all nine tribal governments within South Dakota have passed resolutions against it. Local non- profit groups have also led the opposition.
Powertech, which was organized in Canada, has become part of Azarga Uranium. Azarga has ties to China and Kyrgyzstan. Its largest investor, Platinum Partners, was organized in the Cayman Islands. Seven corporate leaders were charged in New York federal court with fraud and other crimes in December 2016. Platinum Partners is now in receivership.
Powertech/ Azarga needs to get at least ten federal, state, and county permits for its mining operation to begin. It currently has one -from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) – but that license is under litigation. A Federal court recently ordered the NRC to rework the licensing process for the project and comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
THE EPA ROLE
The company has applied to the EPA for two permits. One would allow water use and consumption for the ISL mining process in the lnyan Kara aquifers, a Class Ill permit. The other would allow the company to pump its wastewater into deep disposal wells in the Minnelusa aquifer, using a Class V permit. Deep disposal wells have been an issue for water quantity and quality across the U.S. The permit processes are being handled by the Underground Injection Control Program in the Region 8 EPA office in Denver.
The Region 8 office issued two draft permits to the company in March 2016. Public hearings were held in five area towns in April and May 2017, and public comments were due in June. Over 700 people attended the public hearings, and 93% of those who commented were opposed to the permits. Similarly, the opinions expressed in the written comments were lopsided — 95% of the comments opposed the permits. As of July 2018, the EPA is still considering whether to issue final permits to Powertech.
Historically, the EPA has issued deep disposal well permits. In the current political climate, they are likely to face additional pressure to issue permits. And the current head of the agency has a history as a lobbyist for a uranium company.
But the public’s opposition needs to be heard in this process. This is clearly a test case on whether the EPA takes public input into account in its decision making. Legal issues, including protection of Lakota rights and cultural resources, need to be carefully considered. Science, which indicates that ISL uranium mining cannot be done safely, should also have a role in the discussion. An EPA process that would shut out the public, science, and law could set a horrible precedent.
A NATIONAL ROLE
National support and involvement are needed to stop EPA from issuing final permits and to end this mining proposal. The price of uranium is currently below the cost of production, and there’s no rational reason to start new mines. Still, the uranium industry is pushing for tariffs on imported uranium to buoy the price of the mineral and encourage new mining in the United States. This would support the nuclear industry and nuclear proliferation internationally, encouraging the construction of more nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons.
We are a small, volunteer organization hundreds of miles from other large towns and with limited financial means. Please pressure your organization to take a stand – in your community, in Denver, and in Washington, D.C. We need you to help to shine a light on what’s going on in the Black Hills and apply pressure on the federal government. Alert your media contacts to the issues here. Be sure your lobbyists know what’s going on at the EPA. Let your members know what’s happening here, and encourage them to support our efforts. Tie what’s going on in the Black Hills to issues in your area.
Learn more on our website and contact us, so we can work together to stop this plan. And thank you for helping to save our water and the Black Hills!
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