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Company hoping for 'another Homestake' as gold drilling starts near Rochford

A Canadian company that is hoping for “another Homestake Mine” has begun exploratory drilling for gold near Rochford.

Mineral Mountain Resources announced Monday that drilling began last week. During the first phase of drilling operations, the company plans to drill at least 12 holes ranging in diameter from 2 to 4 inches and ranging in depth from about 1,000 to 1,300 feet.

The drilling is being conducted on privately owned land parcels about a half-mile southeast of Rochford, which is a small, unincorporated community in the north-central Black Hills that was a gold-mining hub during the late 1800s.

The private land where the company is drilling is covered by an exploration notice that was approved in June by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Mineral Mountain also hopes to drill on some public land in the Rochford area, but the U.S. Forest Service is still considering the company’s operating plan for those additional drilling sites in the Black Hills National Forest.

In a news release, Mineral Mountain said the current drilling area is about 16 miles south of the former Homestake Mine, which produced about 40 million ounces of gold from 1876 to 2001.

The company also recently released a slideshow presentation about its drilling plans.

“The Target: Another Homestake Mine,” says one of the slides.

Although Mineral Mountain is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, the company’s president and CEO is Nelson Baker, whose corporate biography says he earned a geological engineering degree in 1968 from the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City.

The drilling project is opposed by some neighboring landowners, environmentalists and others who fear negative impacts from a potential large-scale gold mine. Some Native Americans have called the project a desecration of the Black Hills, which are spiritually significant to several Native American tribes, and Native Americans have also voiced concerns about the project’s proximity to Pe Sla, a large mountain meadow about 7 miles west of the drilling area that is spiritually significant to Sioux people.

In a letter circulated by a group called Save Rochford & Rapid Creek From Gold Mining, Rapid City resident George Kruse cited the example of the Gilt Edge Mine, a 360-acre site 6.5 miles east of Lead. It became an EPA Superfund Site after Brohm Mining Company abandoned it in 1999 and left behind 150 million gallons of acidic heavy-metal-laden water in three open pits and millions of cubic yards of acid-generating waste rock.

Kruse warned of the environmental disaster that could result from contamination of Rapid Creek by a gold mine.

“Everybody along Rapid Creek and Rapid City that drinks water should be concerned about this potential disaster,” Kruse wrote.

For now, Mineral Mountain is only exploring, rather than mining, for gold. The company’s notice of intent, filed with the state DENR, says drilling could eventually include up to 120 exploratory holes within 12 approved drilling areas on private land. No hole will exceed 4,000 feet in depth, and no contact with underground water sources — known as aquifers — is anticipated.

Water for use by the drilling rigs will be pumped from Rapid Creek, which flows alongside Rochford Road. Used water will be stored in a tank where the cuttings will settle out so the water can be reused. At the end of drilling, the water will be disposed pursuant to state regulations, possibly at a sewage treatment plant.

After a hole is drilled and core samples are removed, each hole must be filled with bentonite, or with concrete if an aquifer is encountered. The disturbed area on the surface must be restored to a natural-looking state.

Mineral Mountain paid $250 for an exploratory permit and must maintain a $20,000 bond with state government, which is the maximum statewide bond imposed for exploratory drilling. The bond money is available for use by state regulators if Mineral Mountain abandons the project without fully reclaiming it.

Mineral Mountain previously explored for gold in the mountains at Keystone, another historical Black Hills mining community, from 2012 to 2015. The Keystone project received negative publicity in late 2012 when some drilling water and bentonite leaked into Battle Creek. Drilling was shut down for a week, but DENR officials said the milky substance in the creek did not pose a hazard to people or fish.

Gold mining has been a major industry in the Black Hills since the 1870s. The biggest current player is Wharf Resources, which reported production of 109,175 ounces of gold and 105,144 ounces of silver in 2016 from its mining operation west of Lead in the northern Black Hills.

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Meade County land purchase gives SDSU a home base for ag research

Christopher Graham

It may be covered now with fresh fallen winter snow, but later this year or in 2019, a 111-acre tract of farmland east of Sturgis may be verdant with a variety of row crops and forage as part of an ag research station for South Dakota State University.

A legislative bill, SB48, passed and sent to Gov. Dennis Daugaard last week, authorized the South Dakota Board of Regents and SDSU to buy the improved, tillable land for $902,461.

According to a bill brief provided by the Board of Regents, the land purchase is funded by $502,461 in proceeds from the SDSU research park payout received by the university in 2017, with the additional $400,000, to build a facility for equipment storage and maintenance, office space and a small classroom, coming from ag experiment station fees.

Kristi Cammack, director of the SDSU West River Ag Center in Rapid City, said the land replaces approximately 100 acres of research and demonstration land rented by SDSU near Wall.

“We ended up not getting that land lease back several years ago and so we’ve been on the hunt to find a good location with some suitable farm ground out here in western South Dakota,” Cammack said in an interview. “This is really a nice-sized area for us. It’s easily accessible for the public.”

The tract is located about seven miles east of Sturgis — just north of the Sturgis Municipal Airport and west of the Western Dakota Antique Club grounds — along Meade County Road 12, also known as Alkali Road.

The bill authorizing the purchase came with an emergency clause, allowing the university to take possession in time for the growing season this spring.

Cammack said the land has been planted with alfalfa and other livestock forage grasses for several years. “It really gives us that time to prepare the site and get it in really good condition, so that when we do all that research, it’s starting from a good baseline,” she said.

South Dakota State University agronomist Christopher Graham oversees ag research activities through SDSU’s West River Ag Center, often partnering with ag producers throughout the region on farm trials, a process which has both advantages and disadvantages.

Having its own tract of land is a big deal, he said.

“It’s great to work with farmers and have them involved, but without land, we really don’t have any say with what gets planted where and when things take place,” Graham said. “Now we have control and we can implement different crop rotations that we’re interested in.

Graham said one of the West River ag producers he works with is also a realtor, and assisted in the search for available land. “We looked at few different locations,” he said. “(This location is) flat and it’s uniform, and it just met our needs the best.”

Graham expects to rotate a number of crops on the newly purchased tract, among them a mix of small grains — wheat and oats and also alfalfa and other annual and perennial forages.

Also planned are studies of the intermingling of livestock and maintenance of soil healthiness. A future possibility is a structure on the site for equipment storage and to host meetings with ag producers.

“This is really filling a void for us. Agronomic research is really important to our producers out here in West River,” Cammack said.

Graham hopes to also coordinate research activities with nearby Sturgis Brown High School and with the neighboring Antique Club with its annual late summer Steam & Gas Threshing Bee.

“We’re really hoping we can engage the community with this new land,” he said.

Another similar measure, SB49, also passed and sent to the governor last week, authorized the Board of Regents and SDSU to spend $665,000 to purchase 72 acres of ag land in Brookings County.

(Editor's note: the above story has been changed to clarify the total purchase price which is split between the cost of the land and funds to be used for maintenance, storage, office and classroom at the site.)

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Arrest made in fatal shooting of OST police officer

A person has been arrested in connection with the fatal shooting of an Oglala Sioux Tribe police officer over the weekend, according to tribal authorities.

Officer Brian Garrett, 52, of Kyle, was shot around 4 a.m. Saturday in what investigators believe to be a domestic dispute while he was off duty.

Emergency personnel administered CPR on Garrett, but he was declared dead after being transported on a medical helicopter, according to a release from the Oglala Sioux Tribe Department of Public Safety. 

It says the suspect's name is being withheld while an investigation is conducted by tribal police, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and the FBI.

The FBI, in a tweet Saturday afternoon, said the officer "was shot and killed during an apparent domestic dispute."

Tribal police said they responded to the incident after receiving a call about a "domestic situation and a person being shot" at a residence east of Kyle. The suspect was arrested at the scene and is in custody, they said.

The FBI declined to provide additional information about the case, and acting tribal police chief Mark Mesteth couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

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Air Force: Ellsworth will remain a bomber base

The B-1 bomber planes at Ellsworth Air Force Base will eventually be replaced with B-21 bombers that are currently under development, Air Force officials said Monday in a news release.

The Air Force said it outlined plans for its bomber fleet in its Fiscal Year 2019 President’s Budget Request.

“Those that are bomber bases now should expect to be bomber bases in the future,” said Col. John Edwards, 28th Bomb Wing commander. “The Air Force will continue to work the details of fielding the B-21, but we can expect Ellsworth to be a bomber base in the coming years.”

The budget request also detailed a plan to update the B-52 Stratofortress fleet and continue modifications to the B-1 Lancer and B-2 Spirit fleets while the B-21 Raider is developed. 

The B-21s are under development by Northrop Grumman. Previous reports indicated the Air Force plans to acquire a minimum of 80 to 100 of the aircraft at a cost of $550 million per unit.

Once sufficient B-21 aircraft are operational, the B-1s and B-2s will be incrementally retired. Delivery and retirement timelines are dependent on the B-21 production and delivery schedules, but past estimates have predicted the delivery of B-21s in the mid-2020s.

“If the force structure we have proposed is supported by the Congress, bases that have bombers now will have bombers in the future,” said Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, formerly the president of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. “They will be B-52s and B-21s.”

The B-21, which the Air Force plans to start fielding in the mid-2020s, will eventually become the backbone of the U.S. bomber fleet.

At the end of Desert Storm in 1991, according to the Air Force, the nation had 290 total bombers. Today that force has dropped to 157 bombers at five bomb wings and 15 squadrons.

U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., welcomed the news about Ellsworth's future.

“It’s great to see that the president’s budget request confirms earlier indications that Air Force bases that currently have a bomber presence will have them in the future and that the B-1s will be replaced by the new next-generation B-21 bomber,” Thune said in a written statement. “I will continue to defend Ellsworth’s stellar record of service as a critical component of our national defense and support the modernizations outlined in the bomber vector.”

U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., also lauded the news. 

“When America needs a workhorse — when we need to flex our muscles and show our strength — when we need to respond to terrorists in the Middle East or deter a tyrannical North Korean dictator, we often turn to Ellsworth’s bomber fleet,” said Noem in a press release. “The B-1’s have served in a mission-critical role for decades, but it’s time to modernize. With the Powder River Training Complex in our backyard and a community of support surrounding the base, South Dakota is ready to support the B-21. I am thrilled the U.S. Air Force has committed to maintaining the mission-critical role existing bomber bases like Ellsworth will play into the future.”

Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender also weighed in, saying he was "greatly encouraged" by the announcement on Monday.

"The Air Force knows what we know, that Ellsworth, with its modern facilities and its dedicated, hard-working personnel, should continue serving as a bomber base well into the future," Allender said.