Chief Deputy Attorney General Charles McGuigan is predicting that all of the federal proceedings on the license Powertech/Azaga is seeking to mine uranium in Fall River and Custer counties could take at least "one to two years."

McGuigan, counsel to the South Dakota Board of Minerals and Environment, made the prediction at a board meeting Thursday in Pierre.

The board and the state Water Management Board last fall suspended the permitting process because of public opposition to the mining operations.

McGuigan said he has been unable to find any information that shows the Environmental Protection Agency has started proceedings on Powertech's application for a large-scale mining permit. 

Powertech applied for that permit in 2008, according to Mark Hollenbeck of Edgemont. Hollenbeck is the project manager for Powertech's proposed Dewey-Burdock in situ mining project. 

After wrapping up four days of hearings in South Dakota last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board is aiming to make a decision by the end of the year. Appearing before the three-member panel, representatives of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and a group known as the Consolidated Intervenors criticized the company's geological and hydrological data and its plan to use in situ mining to extract uranium.

Powertech's foes fear the mining will contaminate groundwater, while Powertech and the NRC staff experts say they are satisfied that the mining will not damage water quality and groundwater supplies.

Powertech's plan is to drill hundreds of wells, then circulate oxygenated water to extract the uranium.

If the board rules in favor of Powertech, a legal challenge looms.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe has the option of taking into federal court its concerns about the protection of historic and cultural areas within the proposed mine field, Jeffrey Parsons, the tribe's attorney, said.

Frustrated with the opposition and the delays, Hollenbeck said something has to change.

"I think it’s a ridiculous system that we have set up for mining. We are basically going to run all mining out of the United States," Hollenbeck told the Journal last week. "No one can withstand a 10-year permitting process when you’re basically permitting 8 (to)10 years of mining."

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If the situation doesn't change, he said, mining will have to be outlawed in South Dakota, which he said the environmentalists opposing the mining would "gleefully" welcome.

One Hot Springs couple isn't waiting around to find out whether Powertech or its opponents win. Jerri Baker and her husband, Ron, are moving to Arizona. 

The Bakers moved to Fall River County from Colorado, where Jerri Baker worked for a time for a company that cleaned mine tailings. She said she doubts Powertech can protect the region's aquifers from contamination.

"We're going to Arizona where the aquifers are recharged," Baker said last week.

Fall River rancher Susan Henderson, a Fall River rancher, has vowed to continue the battle against the mining.

After the hearings ended Thursday, she said, "We will soldier on."

(This story has been changed to reflect a correction. Powertech proposes injecting oxygenated water into the ground to extract uranium.)

Journal correspondent Bob Mercer contributed to this story. Contact Andrea J. Cook at 394-8423 or andrea.cook@rapidcityjournal.com

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