Responding to public concern about key water resources in the southern Black Hills, state environmental officials are asking the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission for more authority in regulating a proposed uranium mine near Edgemont.
At the same time, opponents of the mine proposal by Powertech USA Inc. have submitted proposed legislation to restore portions of state permitting authority over the project that lawmakers suspended in 2011.
The state outreach to the NRC comes in part because the 2011 Legislature approved and Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a bill (SB158) that suspended the state's power to permit and directly regulate the injection-extraction well system, known as in-situ, that Powertech wants to use to mine uranium.
Legislators left that part of the permitting process to the NRC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But that wasn't good enough for some critics.
"In a state where we value keeping government close to the people, it makes sense for the state to regulate uranium mining, rather than some distant federal government official," Lilias Jarding, an organizer for the Clean Water Alliance of Rapid City, said Monday. "We support a larger role for the state, both in working with the NRC and in removing the limitations the Legislature passed a couple years ago."
The state still has authority to grant or deny water rights, a wastewater discharge plan and a large-scale mining permit needed by the Powertech project. None of those offer direct authority over the in-situ mining process itself, however. DENR hopes to get at least part of that authority back through an agreement with the NRC.
DENR official Eric Holm said the agency is working with NRC officials on a memorandum of understanding that would give the state a bigger role in setting reclamation bonds and inspecting Powertech's mining operation. Citizen contacts led to that process, Holm said.
"We had, from the public, some interest in having state inspectors out there," he said. "I think, considering customer service, we wanted to be able to provide that."
The MOU would not reinstate in-situ permit authority for the state; that would take legislative action.
Jarding supports the effort by DENR for increased authority under an agreement with the NRC, but also wants the provisions of SB158 repealed and full permitting authority returned to the state.
That's part of what is proposed in the package of bills developed by the Clean Water Alliance, with support from another organizing group, Dakota Rural Action.
Sen. Jim Bradford, D-Pine Ridge, filed three bills Friday to strengthen state regulations on uranium mining and restore the state permitting authority over in-situ uranium mining.
Bradford said residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation are worried about the mining operation depleting and contaminating water supplies that reach to the reservation. Residents of the Edgemont area also have shared such fears, Bradford said Monday.
"The people around Edgemont have really been on me about this," Bradford said. "And they're coming to Pierre to support these bills."
Bradford expects a crowd when the bills are heard in a Senate committee.
Powertech officials will also be there, arguing as they did two years ago that direct state in-situ-mining permits are an unneeded duplication of federal permits and regulation.
Mark Hollenbeck, a rancher near Edgemont who also is project manager for Powertech's proposed Dewey-Burdock uranium mine, said the state already has substantial involvement and power in regulating the water rights, the discharge plan and the mine permit.
"The other side keeps saying the state doesn't regulate us, but I've got four different state permits that say otherwise," Hollenbeck said. "All they're talking about is another hurdle for us to jump."
Hollenbeck said the state could take primacy in regulating the proposed mine, meaning it would reach an agreement with federal officials to be the lead regulator for all the permitting, including the in-situ mine. "We'd encourage the state to get that primacy status. We'd love it," he said.
But Powetech will oppose simply reinstating the state in-situ permit process, he said.
The injection-extraction wells used in the in-situ process force a water-based solution underground to dissolve and capture uranium, then carry it to the surface for processing. The in-situ process does not cause the surface damage of past uranium operations.
The process is designed to minimize environmental damage and restore mined areas when done, Hollenbeck said. Most of the water to be used, which is already of very poor quality, will be recirculated in the in-situ process rather than being lost, Hollenbeck said.
He argues that the well system is designed to keep the solution used in capturing the uranium from escaping underground. Jarding and other critics say the solution has escaped in other mines and is certain to do the same at the Edgemont project.