Uranium mine protesters continued their crusade Monday against the Dewey-Burdock project at the beginning of state water permit hearings that are expected to continue through Friday.

The meetings, held at the Best Western Ramkota in Rapid City, opened with public input by people who had previously signed up to give testimony.

Approximately 200 people have signed up to speak, though it was unclear how many would actually show up. By the end of Monday, fewer than 20 people testified before time ran out for the day.

One of those was Carla Marshall, a Rapid City resident who protested a project she believes could contaminate regional aquifers.

"I believe it's water suicide for the hills," Marshall said during her testimony.

Other protesters raised the prospect that contamination spreads up the food chain as larger animals eat smaller ones. One of those making that argument was Jennifer Belitz, a rural Hot Springs resident who says she lives about 20 miles from the proposed mine site.

Belitz said any contamination would go "into my family's bodies as we consume venison from our land."

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 permit hearing is like a jury trial, where each side presents witnesses and testimony. 

Powertech Uranium Corp., the Canadian company proposing the project, has maintained that it will operate safely without polluting the region. While other in-situ uranium mines have experienced leaks of contaminated water, only one so far — an instance in Texas — is believed to have contaminated a well outside the mining project.

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Mark Hollenbeck, the local project director for Powertech, said that fears of water contamination are overblown. Using data by the U.S. Geological Survey, he's argued that the aquifers in the Edgemont region don't flow back toward Rapid City or Hot Springs.

Besides, the water near Edgemont is already bad, he said.

"The water in the Inyan Kara (aquifer) where we're operating is not fit for human consumption," Hollenbeck said.

Claims of contaminants were shrugged off by at least one Edgemont resident who has lived in the region, which was mined for uranium in the mid-20th century. Bev Gehman said local residents have been drinking the water for generations and still aren't "glowing."

After the hearings are complete, likely in December, the state Water Management Board will decide whether to grant water and water disposal permits for the proposed in-situ mine. Powertech will also need a permit from the state Board of Minerals and Environment, as well as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Environmental Protection Agency.

The hearing will continue at 8:30 a.m. today at the Best Western Ramkota in Rapid City. Members of the public can't comment on the proceedings but are welcome to watch.

Contact Joe O'Sullivan at 394-8414 or joe.osullivan@rapidcityjournal.com

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