The emotional aftershock felt by the world uranium industry from the earthquake-caused nuclear accident in Japan hasn't changed Powertech USA's plans to mine uranium near Edgemont.

An explosion and fire at one Japanese plant, problems at others and concerns overall about escaping radioactivity have fueled fears about nuclear power that directly affect the uranium industry. Those effects have shown up in reduced stock values for uranium producers and concerns about declines in the market price of the radioactive mineral.

But they haven't changed the plans of Powertech USA, a subsidiary of the Canadian corporation Powertech Uranium, to develop an injection-well uranium-mining project in Fall River County, project manager Mark Hollenbeck of Edgemont said Wednesday.

"We certainly aren't thinking about closing up shop and going home," Hollenbeck said. "It (the accident in Japan) certainly has thrown some cold water on the market. Most uranium companies have dropped 20 to 25 percent. But I assume that will be short lived."

Hollenbeck believes the nuclear-energy industry will survive and prosper in spite of the bad news from Japan. And Powertech got some good news closer to home this week when Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a bill that streamlines the permitting process for the uranium company by reducing state oversight and permitting responsibilities.

Critics of Senate Bill158 say it removes an important layer of environmental oversight and eliminates options for public input with a state board that has local perspectives. Supporters argue that the federal oversight and permitting process led by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Environmental Protection Agency offers public-input options and strict regulations.

SB158 gets rid of duplicative state permitting that poses a burden to the developers, Hollenbeck said.

"It allows us to focus on one set of permits, through the NRC, and to answer their questions and make sure everything is right, rather than bouncing around between state and federal agencies," he said. "It'll streamline things. It's not really going to speed them up."

Hollenbeck and Powertech have been working with federal and state regulators for about four years in permitting preparation. And they are still 12 months to 18 months away from having the NRC and EPA permits needed to build and operate the injection-well mining system, Hollenbeck said.

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South Dakota will no longer have direct permit obligations in those areas but still has authority over the granting of a water right and water discharge permit. Hollenbeck said that leaves ample and appropriate state oversight in place.

Others argue, however, that a process that involves injecting a water-based solution into the earth to dissolve and extract uranium with production wells should have multiple layers of protection for the public and environment. Those arguments were unpersuasive in the state Legislature, however, which approved SB158 on a 57-11 vote in the House and 29-2 in the Senate.

State Sen. Angie Buhl, D-Sioux Falls, joined state Sen. Jim Bradford, D-Pine Ridge, in voting against the bill.

"I would rather have state oversight in addition to federal oversight with something that can affect our environment so significantly," Buhl said. "I feel like state officials can respond more quickly if there are problems."

Buhl said opponents made compelling arguments that were lost in what seemed like the weight or presumption on the bill.

"I think ultimately people sort of thought it was going to pass anyway, that it was inevitable," she said.

Daugaard adviser Tony Venhuizen said that even with the changes made by SB158, concerned citizens will have input options at water-related hearings by state boards. Sometimes state regulators are able to take over administration of certain environmental programs, but in uranium mining that's unlikely, he said. So there's no reason to keep state authority there, he said.

"SB158 removed state regulations that duplicated federal regulation in the same areas," Venhuizen said. "In those areas, the federal processes will be the avenue for permitting and regulation."

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or kevin.woster@rapidcityjournal.com

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