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Crow Butte Mine

Crow Butte Mine.

Six years after its filing, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board has scheduled a hearing on Crow Butte Uranium Mine’s proposal to expand its operation to the Marsland area.

The hearing will take place at the Crawford Community Building Oct. 30-Nov. 1. The mine, the Nuclear Regulatory Committee and the Oglala Sioux Tribe will all call witnesses.

The OST is contesting the mine’s expansion on the contention that the NRC failed to include adequate hydrological information in the environmental analysis in order to prove that the mine can contain migration of any fluid.

“Because the NRC license amendment was granted before the requisite ‘hard look’ under (National Environmental Policy Act), the license amendment must be revoked,” reads the OST’s position filing. “Substantial issues remain concerning undetermined impacts to the adjacent surface and groundwater resources, and the lack of information necessary to determine the hydrogeology and geochemistry of the site. The latter includes, but is not limited to, the lack of a defensible baseline groundwater characterization, the lack of a thorough review of the natural and manmade interconnections between aquifers in the area that may allow for cross-contamination with the aquifer slated for chemical mining, and the lack of the required analysis of proposed mitigation measures.”

The tribe’s witnesses are expected to testify that pump test data used by Crow Butte was selective and inadequate for several reasons and that the Basal Chadron Sandstone allows for possible vertical fluid leaks despite the mine’s claim otherwise. The tribe also plans to contest the mine’s scientific methodology and monitoring and wastewater disposal practices, according to their initial position statement.

“The Tribe has maintained the contention for the past several years that Crow Butte has failed, with the NRC’s cooperation and assistance, to comply with clear legal obligations,” the position statement reads, adding that the failure has exposed tribal members to toxic contaminants.

“We believe that this exposure has caused adverse health impacts to the people, animals, plants, water supply and environment in and around the area of the mine, around Chadron, NE and at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation,” the statement continues.

The OST originally requested it be heard on six separate contentions, but only one remains for the ASLB hearing. The final environmental assessment was completed at the end of April.

Crow Butte’s initial position statement indicates they believe the standards defined by the National Environmental Policy Act have been met.

“NEPA does not mandate substantive results; rather, it imposes procedural restraints on agencies, requiring them to take a ‘hard look’ at (and disclose) the environmental impacts of a proposed action and reasonable alternatives to that action. This ‘hard look’ is subject to a ‘rule of reason,’” the mine’s statement reads. “This means that an ‘agency’s environmental review, rather than addressing every impact that could possibly result, need only account for those that have some likelihood of occurring or are reasonably foreseeable…NEPA also does not call for certainty or precision, but an estimate of anticipated (not unduly speculative) impacts.”

The mine’s witnesses will testify on the hydrogeology of the Marsland Expansion Area and analyses of water samples.

“The witnesses also provide an in-depth discussion of the aquifer pumping test. CBR’s witnesses conclude that the pumping test is sufficient to demonstrate confinement, assess aquifer properties and confirm ability to control mining fluids, and that additional pumping tests are not necessary,” the mines’s statement reads.

Crow Butte applied for the Marsland Expansion in May 2012 with plans to operate the Marsland site as a satellite facility. The final environmental assessment says that the overall impacts from mining in the new area will be small, though moderate, short-term impacts are expected in terms of noise, ecological resources and water resources.

The uranium mine, owned by Cameco, was started near Crawford in 1986 as a research and development facility. Commercial operations began in 1991. The mine also has requested expansion permits for what it calls the North Trend and Three Crows areas, both of which are closer to the original mine site than Marsland; those permit were filed prior to the Marsland request. However, Marsland is expected to be the largest of the three in terms of production, giving Crow Butte access to an estimated 600,000 pounds of yellowcake per year.

As Crow Butte has depleted its ore reserves at the original mine site, its valuation has fallen to $10.6 million. According to tax records, its reserves were valued at nearly $76 million in 2011, demonstrating a sharp decline while the NRC has reviewed its expansion requests.

The application for the Marsland expansion indicates Cameco plans to operate 11 individual mines in the area, with the product transported to the main mine’s processing facility. The ore at Marsland is located in the basal sandstone of the Chadron Formation at depths of 800-1,250 feet, at a width that ranges from 1,000-4,000 feet. The permit requests an expansion that will cover 4,622 acres. Initial construction will disturb just under 600 acres of that, though future construction could disturb another 1,160 acres.

There are 135 private water wells within the required area of review, but only 16 are within the license area itself and only 10 of them are active water supply wells. None draw the basal sandstone of the Chadron Formation.

Nineteen comment documents were submitted to the NRC earlier this year, containing 93 comments. While the public will not be allowed to address the ASLB during the hearing, if there is enough interest there will be a time for public comment Oct. 28 from 2-4 p.m. at the Chadron State College Student Center in the Scottsbluff Room.

A determination on whether or not to hold the public comment meeting will be made based on the number of written requests received by Oct. 12. Requests must be sent to Paul Bollwerk III, Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel, Mail Stop T-3A02, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, D.C., 20555-0001.

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