Public input on Crow Butte Uranium Mine’s proposed Marsland Expansion weighed decidedly against allowing additional mining from those present at Sunday’s listening session with Atomic Safety and Licensing Board.
The ASLB is holding evidentiary hearings on the possible Marsland Expansion this week in Crawford, but allowed general comments by the public Sunday afternoon in Chadron. Roughly 20 individuals testified before the board, with only one – Dawes County Commissioner Jake Stewart – speaking in favor of the expansion. The majority of the remaining testifiers identified themselves as tribal members.
Crow Butte applied for the Marsland Expansion permit six years ago, and the Oglala Sioux Tribe is contesting that application, alleging that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission failed to include adequate hydrological information in the environmental analysis in order to prove that the mine can contain migration of any fluid.
By far the most dramatic moment in the hearing Sunday came when the final testifier, Misty Plenty Wolf, approached the podium after the individual called to testify immediately before her feigned fainting after taking a drink of water left near the podium.
“Our beautiful natural resources and our lives are at stake,” Plenty Wolf said while her companion remained on the floor.
White men like those on the board arrived in the U.S. seeking a better future, when the indigenous people, including her tribal ancestors, were already here, she continued.
“You don’t belong here, and your pollution doesn’t belong here!”
Other opponents of the expansion also cited concerns over pollution of nearby water sources, as well as the cultural importance of the land to the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
“Mother Nature keeps score,” said Sioux County resident and OST member Nancy Kile. “A lack of containment is inevitable (and will contaminate) one of the last pristine areas of the U.S.”
She urged the ASLB to require Crow Butte to monitor the current human impacts caused by uranium mining in the area before they are allowed to expand.
“There is no proof they can contain it,” agreed Dennis Yellow Thunder, also a tribal member. “We’re the ones that are left with the danger, the illnesses, the sickness and the heartache.” Yellow Thunder alleged that his granddaughter’s birth defects are due to uranium-contaminated water as far away as the Pine Ridge Reservation and contends that all of the aquifers in the region are connected.
“You contaminate one, you contaminate them all,” he said.
The tribe’s connection to water was emphasized by several speakers, including Darla Black.
“Water is life. It goes even further than that. As women we carry children in that water,” she said. “The issue we have with water will affect all residents around Crow Butte. It doesn’t matter what color your skin is.”
“You won’t be here, and I won’t be here but for the generations behind us, it’s going to affect them,” testified Richard Broken Nose, who said he remembers his grandmother talking about “yellow soil” and warning that non-Indians would someday disturb it and impact human lives.
Territorial treaties of 1851 and 1868 were also oft-repeated reasons why the expansion permit should be denied, as individuals called on the government to act as the tribe’s trustees and protect their rights, both environmental and cultural.
“I ask you to reject the efforts of Crow Butte,” said Trina Lone Hill, a former historic preservation officer for OST. “These extractive industries are erasing our footprint, our history. That is so upsetting to me.
“Mother Earth must be protected,” she added.
While Jane Sayer of Scotts Bluff County said she doesn’t oppose the operation, she did voice concerns about pollution, and like other speakers asked the ASLB to insist Crow Butte monitor its current mining operation for pollutants before the company is allowed to expand to the Niobrara River basin.
“Pollution doesn’t honor county lines, state lines or any lines,” she said.
Jake Stewart was the only one who spoke in favor of the permit, telling the board that the Marsland area is his family’s backyard and that Crow Butte has been a “good neighbor.” The mine brings an economic impact that is important to the county and the voters he represents, he continued, and their voices should be considered, too, not just those of out-of-state protesters.
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.
The formal hearings in Crawford began Tuesday and are expected to run through Thursday. Those hearings are taking place at the Crawford Community Building, starting at 8 a.m. each day.