In the wake of a win before the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, Crow Butte Uranium Mine also received support from the Dawes County Commissioners as a review of a proposed change in regulations continues.
Vlad Dorjets, a policy analyst with the Office of Management and Budget, hosted a conference call Dec. 20 with the county commissioners and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission regarding possible changes to 40 CFR Part 192, which addresses uranium and thorium mining. The regulation was first issued in 1983 and was last revised in 1995.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is proposing an update to the rule that would require in-situ mining companies to test the water quality for 14 specific particles prior to mining the area and then to restore water quality to pre-mining conditions after mining is concluded. Companies would also have to monitor the groundwater for 30 years after it has been deemed restored and stable, though that time frame can be shortened if the analysis shows that there is a 95 percent certainty that the water quality is stable for three consecutive years.
The EPA held one of three nation-wide public hearings on the proposed changes in Chadron last year, and the review of the rules change continues to make its way through the federal government.
Dawes County Commissioners last week told Dorjets that Crow Butte, which first began mining uranium near Crawford in 1991, has a large economic impact on the region and more restrictive regulations could further damage a downturn from which the industry is already suffering.
A few years ago, Crow Butte employed 69 full time positions, said Commissioner Chairman Jake Stewart. Today, they are operating at a “skeletal crew” of 33. More than 20 full time contracting jobs have also disappeared, as have three part-time positions, he continued.
The mine is seeking to have three expansion permits issued by the NRC, the largest of which will extend operations into the Marsland area. Those permits have been bogged down in the approval process for several years, and the mine’s value to the county is decreasing as it depletes its reserves.
Stewart said the mine consistently produced 800,000 pounds of yellow cake uranium each year in its early stages. The projection for 2016 is less than 150,000 pounds, and next year, he said, production will likely fall to below 100,000 pounds.
“This has an effect on our valuation as a whole,” Stewart said. Crow Butte’s uranium reserves are taxable property, and as it depletes its stores and fails to secure expansion sites, taxing entities suffer. In 2007, the mine’s reserves were valued at an estimated $67 million. This year’s value is $13.5 million.
That equals $7.4 million in lost revenue for Dawes County – or three years of the county’s entire budget, Stewart said. Thirty-four percent of the tax revenue for the Crawford School District comes from Crow Butte, and the declining valuation has prompted the board there to increase the levy for two consecutive years.
The commissioners also expressed concerns about larger economic impacts, particularly in the city of Crawford, if the mine faces additional expenses because of the regulations. They noted that the city’s population has dropped in recent years, and four businesses have shuttered, ostensibly due to economic hardship.
Commissioner Webb Johnson called the uranium mine a “good neighbor” who has supported scholarships and community activities.
“It’s been very helpful to the area,” he said.
After the commissioners presentation, Dorjets said while he’s glad to learn about the economic impact of the mine, he was also seeking information in relation to the safety of the mine, questioning if the county is comfortable with the current standards.
The commissioners work frequently with personnel from the mine, Stewart said, and have formed a successful partnership. The last thing any of the commissioners want is to make citizens ill, and he believes the procedures in place already do a good job of limiting the effects of any potential hazard.
“This has been a safe mine,” he said.