Environmental groups in the Black Hills are lamenting the death of a bill on Thursday that would have placed tougher regulations on a proposed uranium mining operation.
The bill, drafted by Dakota Rural Action, was the latest broadside by opponents in a near-decade long war over Powertech's proposed mine near Edgemont.
The Canadian-owned company wants to use a method to extract uranium called in situ leach mining, which involves pumping water into the ground and sucking it back up.
The process increases uranium and other chemical concentrations in the site's groundwater, but after mining is complete a company is generally required by the federal government to pump fresh water into the aquifer to return it approximately to its original quality.
Opponents fear that the federal requirements for water restoration are too weak and will allow Powertech to leave the groundwater highly contaminated at its proposed mining site.
Their antidote was HB 1193, which would have required the company to restore the site's groundwater to a condition set by the state.
But lawmakers in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources committee were unconvinced that those regulations were necessary. The bill died, 10 votes to two.
In a phone interview on Thursday, Mark Hollenbeck, project manager for Powertech, commended the committee's decision.
"The whole intent of this legislation was to kill or stall the project. Everybody knew that from the get-go," he said. "And the Legislature saw through that."
Hollenbeck said he believed the bill's new rules would have been unenforceable because the federal government would have jurisdiction over water restoration. But he said the bill's passage would have created legal ambiguity that could have led to a lawsuit against the state — perhaps by mining opponents who want the bill's rules enforced — and that could have stalled Powertech's project.
Sabrina King, a lobbyist for Dakota Rural Action, said that as far as she understood, the rules would have been enforceable. She pointed to Wyoming, which regulates groundwater restoration of similar uranium mines despite having a regulatory arrangement with the federal government similar to South Dakota's.
King said if Powertech believes HB 1193's proposed rules would have been unenforceable, she is concerned what other state mining regulations the company believes are unenforceable.
"If that's their objection, there's a really serious problem with where the rules and the laws stand," she said.
Hollenbeck's other major concern with the bill is that he believes mining opponents want to push the state to set a standard of groundwater restoration that is difficult to comply with.
Hollenbeck said it's impossible to restore the chemical components of groundwater, as in any extraction operation, to exactly how they were before mining began. He said the company's goal, as required in federal regulations, is to restore the water to its original use.
In this case, he said, the site that Powertech wishes to mine has groundwater not fit for human consumption but is fit for livestock consumption. Hollenbeck said that his company pledges to restore the water to a condition that is fit for livestock consumption.
But Lilias Jarding, an organizer with the Clean Water Alliance, said that those federal standards for water restoration are too broad and give the company ample leeway to leave the groundwater highly contaminated. She also believes, based on groundwater analysis conducted by a hydrologist contracted by mining opponents, that the water is of higher quality than Powertech has claimed.
Jarding said she and other opponents accept that the water can not be restored to exactly how it was before mining began. However, she said that doesn't mean the state shouldn't try to set its own standards for Powertech to meet, just as Wyoming does.
"South Dakota legislators have missed another chance to protect the citizens of South Dakota and their water from this mine," she said.