Now that both state permitting boards have postponed their hearings on Powertech's proposed Dewey-Burdock uranium mine near Edgemont, all eyes are on the federal government for its approval.
The proposed Dewey-Burdock mine, which would be about 15 miles northwest of Edgemont, would employ in-situ mining — meaning the company would inject oxygenated water into the ground to absorb uranium. The water would then be pumped back to the surface, where the uranium would be extracted and processed.
Opponents worry the mine could drain or pollute the region's aquifers and damage the region's tourism industry. Proponents say it can be done safely and would bring jobs to the region and tax revenue to the state.
Now, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must grant the project permission before the two state permit boards make any decisions.
Powertech CEO Richard Clement met recently with the Rapid City Journal's editorial board and reporter Joe O'Sullivan. Here are some things from those meetings, in Clement's own words:
On Powertech's Centennial uranium project in Colorado
A. "We think it's very doable. We think it's really a matter of doing proper public relations that we didn't do very well the first time around. And that we think we have an opportunity there to develop something that's fairly benign.
"They (Azarga of Hong Kong) feel strongly about that opportunity, so they bought a 60 percent interest in that. So they'll become operator in that project ... They feel Colorado is going to be a good state to work in. Our relationship with the regulators in Colorado was very good, very strong. We had more of a political problem than we had a technical problem."
On site regulation for Dewey-Burdock
A. "We expect to see the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) on the site daily. There's a lot of issues that we deal with. Number one, the drilling of the wells, and number two, the DENR during all of our exploration operations, the development of our test wells that we used in the area, they had people out there on a constant basis. Our expectations are that they'll be there essentially throughout the process. They have a very important interest in that we do the project properly, especially since we recommended it to be permitted."
On how water use will be monitored
A. "Every well needs to have a monitoring meter on it so that you know how much is being consumed. All of those are electronically recorded, and so all that information is available to the DENR, the NRC. The DENR not only for the purposes of water control, but for the water right. And that information is readily available. All of these parts of this project are extremely closely monitored by the agencies, especially by the state agencies. Even though they have no authority over the mining process themselves ... they have significant authority over everything else that's in the process of our operation."
On Azarga and foreign ownership
A. "There's always been discussions about whether it’s Chinese or Belgian or everything else. The reality is the fact that Azarga, the Hong Kong-based company that's in the press release, is the strongest and largest shareholder of Powertech. They now own 45 percent of the company: An investment company that was established by an Australian, a Canadian and an American to focus on uranium opportunities around the world ... They bought out the interest that was owned by Synatom, which is a Belgian fuel procurement (company).
On stock price: Why so low?
A. "We have had to dilute the company significantly because of the time it's taken and amount of expense that has been required to develop our permitting process, the costs of drilling, the detailed drilling in the area, all the wells that were put in, the work required. We've spent over $30 million on Dewey-Burdock alone, in terms of preparation of the applications." (Note: the stock was trading at 10 cents a share on Tuesday.)
How much will the uranium sell for?
A. "The long-term contract price right now is $50 a pound. Our cash cost in this is somewhere around $33 per pound ... We'll have to raise on the order of $30 million. Once we have a contract in hand that shows what we're doing is possible, then we can go get project financing."
What will workers get paid?
A. "I expect that we'll have at least 80 people on a permanent basis until we get into final restoration. And most of those will be just skilled labor. There's a few engineers and a few geologists. The majority of people is just skilled employees that we hire to be the monitoring employees, running the dryer unit, running the tankage. The average pay at one of these facilities is about $50,000 a year."
What is the project's greatest risk?
A. "The greatest risk that you see associated with these things is the risk to the drillers, because that is a high-risk job. Supposedly, it's one of the highest-risk jobs in the United States. Oil and gas drilling, and water well drilling because they're out working on steel and throwing steel pipes around."
Why so much resistance to your projects?
A. "We've spread our population over a very broad area. There's no part of the United State people don't want to live in anymore. So, therefore, a lot of the operations that would be taking place such as mining for gold in the Rockies or things like that are much more difficult to do nowadays.
"People are afraid of mining because they think it's going to change the environment. They're afraid because they think of the old open pit mines that were done in certain areas. But that's not the way this is. There's a reason in-situ was developed and created."