CRAWFORD, Neb. – Deb Russell had a good look last week at a working uranium mine.

She also got a glimpse of what could be coming to the southern Black Hills if Powertech Uranium Corp gets federal and state approval to start mining uranium near Edgemont.

Russell, a member of the Fall River County Commission from Oral, joined county resident Ray Palmer as guests of Cameco Resources for a four-hour visit to its Crow Butte Operation southeast of Crawford.

The tour eased some of Russell’s worries and answered some questions about the uranium proposal for Edgemont. But it raised questions for her too. They include whether South Dakota would have a full-time environmental inspector near the Powertech site for regular checks, as the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality does at Crow Butte.

“If the state were to say no to that, that they’re not going to make that kind of an investment, it might be a deal breaker for me,” Russell said. “I think it’s important to have somebody at site - somebody not paid by the company - to monitor things, just for reassurance.”

The Fall River County Commission doesn’t have authority to approve or reject the Powertech plan. Those are federal and state issues. But the commission, like its neighbor commission in Custer County to the north, does have an interest in the impacts of the mining operation proposed by Powertech, which would affect parts of both counties northwest of Edgemont.

And the Fall River Commission has engaged as an intervener in a permitting application to the state by Powertech. Commission-ers are developing a set of stipulations they’d like to see agreed to by Powertech before they offer support.

“We’re kind of waiting for the rest of the commission to do this tour,” Russell said. “After everyone’s been there, we’ll talk.”

Another tour is being planned for January. And this one will likely include the two Fall River commissioners who haven’t seen Crow Butte; Anne Cassens and Joe Allen, as well as Custer County Commission Chairman Dave Hazeltine of Custer and possibly another commissioner.

Meanwhile, the debate continues between opponents of the Powertech plan who fear long-term impacts on groundwater supplies and supporters who like the idea of jobs, increased tax revenues and more economic vitality for a sagging area economy.

The Powertech plan would involve a system of injection and extraction wells called in-situ leach mining, a process that avoids the surface disturbance of strip mining but raises other often-controversial environmental issues about water resources underground.

Cameco Resources, one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, uses the in-situ process at its Crow Butte Operation. That’s why Russell and other commission members have been taking the tour, with another being planned for January.

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“I’m really glad I went. I’ve seen the pictures, but that doesn’t tell you anything like being there,” Russell said.

Russell said she was struck first of all by the nature of the mine, which has little surface disturbance other than the acres and acres of individual well heads covered by bee-hive-like boxes or what appear to be corrugated pipe sections planted in the ground.

There are 5,400 wells at the Crow Butte operation, which is located on a permitted area of 2,875 acres, about 1,250 of which are impacted by the mining. About 2,000 to 2,800 of the wells are operating at any one time.

Slightly more water is extracted from the mining zone than is injected into it. That creates a pressure system that keeps the solution and its uranium inside the cone of the well, and within the monitoring wells on the perimeter designed to assure the tainted water doesn’t escape.

Mostly that has succeeded during the 21 years the Crow Butte mine has been in operation. There have been some permit violations, and one $50,000 fine related to wells that didn’t pass regular tests and pumping practices that violated conditions.

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