EDGEMONT | Susan Henderson and Mark Hollenbeck share a powerful love for this rugged ranch country just off the southern edge of the Black Hills.
But the two ranchers differ sharply on how the land, and their livelihoods, might be affected by a proposed uranium mine about 13 miles northwest of town.
The proposal would use a water-based solution and hundreds of injection-recovery wells to extract uranium from ore formations hundreds of feet under the ground, a process that avoids the surface damage of strip mining but raises complicated questions about radioactivity and potential water degradation underground.
Henderson fears the so-called Dewey Burdock Project — named for two abandoned towns nearby — by the Canadian corporation Powertech Uranium will most likely deplete the underground aquifer system that supplies her 8,000-acre ranch with clean water.
At worst, she fears, it could contaminate that precious water resource and ruin her contract cattle-grazing business for good.
"Without water, this ranch is dead," Henderson said during a recent pickup truck tour of her sprawling ranch southeast of Edgemont. "And if Powertech gets its way, they're going to pull down that aquifer. And I'll be out of business."
But Hollenbeck argues that the uranium removal plan posed by the Canadian corporation's American arm will bring up to 85 jobs over the 20-year life of the project and add more financial vitality to an arid landscape that struggles economically.
There could be 150 jobs during construction, he said.
And Hollenbeck believes that can all be done without harming the land that he, too, holds so dear.
"This is where my kids swim," he said, standing along the Cheyenne River on property he owns a few miles down from one of the proposed mining sites. "Do you think I'm going to do something to ruin the place where my kids will grow up?"
Plan moving forward
The arguments are becoming more pointed as the Powertech proposal moves closer to possible approval by federal and state regulatory agencies. If all goes well for Powertech, mining could begin sometime next summer.
Meanwhile, the debate goes on. It is likely to surface Monday during a 9 a.m. meeting of the Fall River County Commission at the courthouse in Hot Springs, where the Powertech proposal will be discussed. Henderson said the audience might include opponents of the plan from the Crawford area of northwest Nebraska, where an injection-well uranium mine has operated by another company for more than 20 years.
Henderson is working to beat back the Powertech plan in South Dakota with help from the Clean Water Alliance of Rapid City and other opponents of water permits likely to be considered by the state Board of Water Management in Pierre. They are also fighting a proposed state mining permit to be considered by the South Dakota Board of Minerals and Environment.
Hearings before those boards are likely to be in March and April.
The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the lead agency on uranium processing, also is working toward a decision that seems to be favoring Powertech at this point. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working on applications for the injection wells that will be used for mining, if the plan is approved.
Water key to process
Water issues are essential because of those injection techniques. Rather than the strip mining methods of the 1950s, '60s and '70s that left open mine pits and piles of waste rock on the landscape near Edgemont, the Powertech proposal would "mine" uranium in the same area with wells that reach down to the uranium underground.
Hundreds of wells would be dug so that a water solution — most likely water, oxygen and carbon dioxide — could be injected down into underground formations holding uranium ore. The solution would leach the uranium out of the rock and be collected and pumped to the surface by recovery wells.
There would be a processing facility on the main project area 13 to 15 miles northwest of Edgemont, where the recovered uranium would get initial processing before being transported for further processing out of state.
The effects on the environment would be much less than the old strip-mining days, said Hollenbeck, an organic rancher who also works as local project manager for Powertech.
Following a tour of his ranch — a smaller operation than Henderson's with a picturesque pasture along the Cheyenne River — Hollenbeck stopped at one of the abandoned strip mines.
To make his point, he pointed to the former mine that was essentially an irregular-shaped pit that dropped off 80 feet from the surrounding terrain.
"People need to understand that this is not the kind of mining we're talking about. I think sometimes there's confusion about that," he said. "Each of our wells will be a hole in the ground with a pump in it, with a covering that looks like a bee hive."
There would be a lot of those, however, with 300 to 600 individual wells likely to be operating at a time. They would be in clusters at mining sites within a project area of more than 10,500 acres.
Most of that ground would not be disturbed, however, and much would be used for buffer zones. The actual mining zones would cover about 150 acres, Hollenbeck said.
The nature of uranium and its relationship to water make it unlikely that any would escape and move far underground, he said. Oxygenated water collects and carries the uranium, which is how it would be recovered. Once that oxygen is removed or depleted, the uranium settles out again, he said.
"As soon as it runs out of oxygen, it precipitates," Hollenbeck said. "So you can't move it a few feet without enough oxygen, much less a few miles."
Critics not convinced
Henderson said that sounds good, but only on the surface. There are few certainties when it comes to the complexities of water movement deep underground, she said.
It isn't just the obvious issues with the radioactivity of uranium ore but also the injection process itself and how the solution — which might seem harmless — can change water supplies over time.
"They all talk about it like they know for sure," Henderson said. "They don't know anything for sure. And if they ruin that water, there's no way to fix it."
Undoubtedly, running hundreds of water wells would mean using lots of water. Hollenbeck said engineering studies show the Inyan Kara and Madison aquifers can provide the water requested for the operation without hurting other wells in the aquifers nearby.
Reviews by water specialists with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources say there is a "reasonable probability" that the water could be removed without damaging or depleting water rights held by others.
That isn't reassuring to Henderson, who doesn't find Powertech's word or the notion of "reasonable probability" good enough.
"This fight isn't over yet," she said. "I'm just getting started."