The Atomic Licensing Board evaluating opposition to uranium mining in southwest South Dakota switched its focus on Wednesday to the challengers' contention that mining could contaminate ground water.

The Wednesday session was the second of three days of hearings at the Hotel Alex Johnson in Rapid City. The hearings are scheduled to conclude today.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe and Consolidated Intervenors insist that not enough geological data was collected to effectively evaluate the potential for contamination. They say Powertech/Azarga, which is seeking permission to mine, has ignored evidence that the geological formations are fractured in the area into which water would be injected to wash uranium to the surface. Fractures in those formations would allow radioactive contamination to flow from one level to another, opponents of the mining say.

The two groups won a small victory Wednesday when the three-judge panel ordered Powertech to share additional geographical information it bought from the Tennessee Valley Authority.

On Tuesday, board judges spent the day interviewing a panel of experts who represented the varying opinions of the of Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Powertech/Azarga and the opposing views of the tribe and intervenors regarding historical and cultural surveys done during the licensing procedure.

In 2009, Powertech applied for a license for its proposed Dewey-Burdock in situ leach recovery facility in Custer and Fall River counties. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission in April approved Powertech's initial license.

Consolidated Intervenors and the OST have challenged the findings of the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement released in November 2012. They say not enough information was collected.

On Wednesday, a new panel of experts representing the interests of Powertech, NRC, the OST and Consolidated Intervenors sparred over the validity of the geological and hydrological data used to support their contrasting positions. 

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Powertech and the NRC staff experts are satisfied that the data used to support the license request have shown water quality and groundwater supplies will not be damaged by the mining. They also stressed that additional information will be collected once well-field development begins. At that point, Powertech has the authority to do further testing and will be required to do that monitoring to ensure the water remains uncontaminated.

The information Powertech has supplied is more than adequate to meet federal guidelines for the baseline-groundwater quality required, the company's attorney, Christopher Pugsley, said.

Jeffrey Parsons, the OST attorney, disagreed. He said the Dewey-Burdock mining presents a unique situation because of the thousands of boreholes drilled years ago in the area.

Waiting to gather more information after the company actually begins to develop the site will be too late, Parsons said.

"The current data and methodology are not adequate to assess the environmental impacts under the National Environmental Protection Act," Parsons said. "NEPA requires all relevant data be included."

Contact Andrea J. Cook at 394-8423 or andrea.cook@rapidcityjournal.com

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