Another step towards beginning in situ uranium mining
HOT SPRINGS – On Monday, March 6, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it issued two draft permits and an “aquifer exemption” for the Dewey Burdock in-situ uranium mining project.
EPA says it is seeking public comment on these permits and the exemption, and will conduct “information sessions,” combined with public hearings, on several dates between April 28 and May 11 (see below for dates and times). EPA will also accept public comments on the draft permits and a proposed aquifer exemption through May 19.
EPA has issued two draft Underground Injection Control (UIC) Area Permits to Powertech (USA) Inc., a division of Azarga Uranium. These permits could allow Powertech to operate a “uranium recovery project” in the Dewey Burdock area that straddles the Custer and Fall River county line.
The draft permits include:
•A UIC Class III Area Permit “for injection wells for the in-situ recovery (ISR) of uranium in the Inyan Kara Group aquifers”
•A UIC Class V Area Permit for deep injection wells that would be used to dispose of in-situ mining waste fluids into the Minnelusa Formation, which is below the Inyan Kara aquifer, “after treatment.”
According to EPA spokesperson Lisa McClain-Vanderpool, draft UIC permits and the proposed aquifer exemption “record of decision” do not represent an “approval of the permitted activity” and do not authorize “well construction or injection activity to begin at the site.”
“Issuing the draft permits begins the public participation process and provides an opportunity for interested parties to review our proposed permits and provide comments on them,” Vanderpool said.
“EPA regulations require that the EPA issue draft permit decisions for public review and comment. Public comments received will inform the EPA’s final permit decision.”
This could be to either issue or deny final permits, Vanderpool said.
At the time the EPA issues the final permit decision, the EPA will also release a response to comments, which will describe and respond to all “significant comments” on the draft permit or the permit application.
Under the terms of the draft permits, in-situ waste injected into the aquifer under the Class V permit must be treated prior to being injected and must meet all radioactive waste and hazardous waste standards.
These standards, according to the EPA’s Dewey Burdock draft permit fact sheet say that waste to be injected must be treated to “decrease radionuclide activities to levels below the established limits for discharge of radionuclides to the environment.” EPA regulations set limits for the amount of lead, polonium, radium, natural uranium and thorium in the waste injected into underground aquifers.
EPA doesn’t anticipate thorium-230 or lead-210 at levels above the limits, but it will require treatment if limits are exceeded, Vanderpool said. Radium-226 will be treated in radium settling ponds by adding barium, which will cause the radium to fall out of the solution.
Waste streams below the established levels are not considered radioactive waste according to EPA regulations.
EPA says monitoring of the underground sources of drinking water -- and livestock water sources -- surrounding the Class III injection well fields will take place before, during and after in-situ operations begin, if permitted, “to ensure the underground sources of drinking water are protected.”
However, EPA rules say Powertech will be doing this monitoring, if the final permits are approved.
EPA is also proposing an “aquifer exemption” approval with the draft UIC Class III Area Permit.
Specifically, this approval would exempt the uranium-bearing portions of the Inyan Kara Group aquifers from protection under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
EPA says this exemption must be in place before in-situ mining within these aquifers can occur.
EPA rules allow the agency to exempt certain portions of an aquifer from underground drinking water status “if the criteria listed under the regulation are met.”
The Draft Aquifer Exemption Record of Decision explains how Powertech demonstrated to EPA that the uranium ore-bearing portions of the Inyan Kara aquifer meet the criteria for an exempted aquifer: Powertech asserted that the aquifer isn’t currently a drinking water source, and it can’t be used as one in the future because of its mineral (uranium), energy-producing properties are “expected to be commercially producible.”
Critics of the Powertech’s Dewey Burdock plans wonder if EPA is going to “write off” the Inyan Kara aquifer at this location and allow Azarga/PowerTech to dump waste into the aquifer.
Vanderpool said Powertech’s plans are to use the exempted areas of the Inyan Kara aquifers to release lixiviant – essentially in situ mining wastewater-- in.
Lixiviant is local groundwater, “enriched” with oxygen and carbon dioxide, according to Powertech’s Mark Hollenbek, which dissolves the soft sandstone around the uranium and releases the mineral trapped in it to be pumped to the surface and collected.
Vanderpool says The Class III Area Permit doesn’t allow just any waste disposal within the Inyan Kara aquifers. The license issued to Powertech by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires in situ mining groundwater “restoration” when put into the exempted portions of the Inyan Kara aquifers.
Under its obligation to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act and EPA’s own Tribal Policy, EPA has been consulting and coordinating with several interested tribes to identify the potential effects of the proposed project on traditional cultural places, historic and sacred sites.
“During our consultation meetings, all of the tribes we met with expressed concerns about surface water and groundwater impacts” from the in situ process. “Tribes with which the EPA consulted also expressed concerns that the proposed injection zone for the Class V deep injection wells lies above the Madison Formation aquifer, which is an important drinking water supply in western South Dakota.
EPA will continue to consult and coordinate with Tribes as necessary throughout the public comment period concerning these proposed permitting actions.
“The public is encouraged to provide comment on these draft permits and the aquifer exemption by midnight mountain time, May 19,” Vanderpool said.
“The EPA emphasizes that the issuance of draft UIC permits and the proposed aquifer exemption record of decision is not an approval of the permitted activity” said Vanderpool, “and does not authorize any well construction or injection activity to begin at the site. Issuing the draft permits begins the public participation process and provides an opportunity for tribes and other interested parties to review our proposed permits and provide comments on them. The public comments received will inform the EPA’s final permit decision to either issue or deny final permits.”
EPA’s final permit decision will be based on an evaluation of comments received and a determination of whether underground sources of drinking water are protected. More information about the draft permits can be found at the EPA Region 8 UIC Program website: https://www.epa.gov/uic/uic-epa-region-8
• To comment: Written comments must be received by email, fax or mail sent to: Valois Shea (firstname.lastname@example.org); Fax: 303-312-6741, U.S. EPA Region 8 Mail Code: 8WP-SUI, 1595 Wynkoop Street, Denver, CO 80202-1129
The public may also provide written and/or verbal comments during the following EPA public hearings:
•Valentine, Neb. - Thursday, April 27, from 4 - 8:30 p.m. (break from 5 - 6 p.m.), at Niobrara Lodge, 803 US Highway 20, Valentine, Nebraska.
•Rapid City – Monday and Tuesday, May 8 and 9, 1 - 8 p.m. (break from 5 - 6 p.m.), The Best Western Ramkota Hotel, 2111 N. LaCrosse Street, Rapid City, South Dakota 57701
•Hot Springs - Wednesday, May 10, 1 - 8 p.m. (break from 5 - 6 p.m.), at the Mueller Center.
•Edgemont - Thursday, May 11, 1 - 8 p.m. (break from 5 - 6 p.m.), at St. James Catholic Church, 310 3rd Avenue.