State water officials are sure to get an earful of opposition and some support for a proposed uranium mine near Edgemont since more than 200 people have signed up to speak at a water permit hearing in Rapid City.
After being pushed back by the Oct. 4 blizzard, the second of two state permit hearings on a proposed uranium mine near Edgemont — this one focusing exclusively on water — begins today.
The state Water Management Board will hear a contested case hearing on whether to approve water use permits for the proposed Dewey-Burdock mine project. The hearing, taking place at the Best Western Ramkota in Rapid City, continues a battle between Powertech Uranium Corp., a Canadian company, and an assortment of opponents from across the region who worry mining may contaminate ground water supplies.
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.
The hearing is sort of like a jury trial, where each side presents witnesses and testimony. Before that part starts, over 200 people who have signed up will be allowed to make public statements. The hearings for the company's mining permit request to the state Board of Minerals and Environment began last month and also drew mostly opposition from residents and environmentalists, though some support was expressed.
In those hearings, opponents railed against the project, worrying that it will pollute or drain the region's aquifers. They argued that any contamination could harm wildlife and livestock, and that the South Dakota Legislature's removal of state regulation over the project in favor of only federal monitoring may hinder oversight of the mine.
Mark Hollenbeck, project manager for Powertech, said in the water permit hearings that the company will work to show that the water necessary for mining is available. When making his case for the permit, Hollenbeck points to the fact that, after years of gathering information, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has recommended the project go forward.
Hollenbeck said the project will use about 170 gallons per minute from the Inyan Kara aquifer, which resides near the surface in the Edgemont area and is also where the mining will take place. That consumption will come once the project's wells are dug and have begun using the water needed to inject into the ore containing uranium.
The company also wants to take up to 500 gallons per minute from the Madison aquifer for after the uranium deposits are exhausted in an area. Powertech would take that water and put it into the Inyan Kara aquifer, which is where the mining will occur.
A water rights permit, according to DENR documents, can only be issued if it meets these criteria:
- There is a reasonable probability that unappropriated water is available;
- The proposed diversion can be developed without unlawful impairment of existing rights;
- The proposed use is a beneficial use; and
- The proposed use is in the public's interest
Bruce Ellison, an attorney opposing the project, said the last point gives the board more latitude to make a decision than the state Board of Minerals and Environment, which is considering Powertech's mining application. And Ellison, who represents the Clean Water Alliance, said the board needs to keep in mind that while Powertech could be the first company to return to uranium mining in the region, it may not be the last.
"We want them to think about the fact that this is about the opening of the door; this is not the first mining project," Ellison said. "This is may be the first of six or seven."
Aside from the concerns about water consumption and contaminated water drifting or leaking outside the mine boundaries, Ellison worries whether the federal government will fix a high enough bond to cover any pollution.
State lawmakers in 2011 effectively removed the state DENR from developing a plan to regulate uranium mining in the state. That leaves the federal agencies like the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Environmental Protection Agency to the oversight.
"We have to go crying to the feds to say please give us enough money to restore our water," Ellison said.
The supporters of the proposed mine argue that it will bring jobs to the Edgemont area and tax revenue to the region and state. Hollenbeck echoed that point over the phone last week, saying that annual mine revenues would be as enough to cover the losses the region suffered when tens thousands of cattle died during the blizzard.
"We are looking at a positive economic impact of that same magnitude," he said.
Those arguments don't sway opponents like Hot Springs resident Jerri Baker, who worries about the mine draining the water supply in the aquifers.
"They're taking too much for what they need," Baker said. "I don't think that we have enough water to be doing this."