Last year, Rep. Larry Lucas supported a bill that reduced state environmental oversight on proposed uranium-mine operations in the southern Black Hills.
This year, Lucas has signed on as a co-sponsor for legislation that would reverse that law. And Lucas said it is a contradiction he is willing to face to make sure the environment is protected.
"Native Americans have expressed their concerns about uranium mining damaging water supplies," said Lucas, who represents a district with significant Native populations. "Last year, it looked like it was safe. But I guess I want to take one more look at it. It's better to be safe than sorry when you're talking about uranium."
So Lucas, D-Mission, signed on as a co-sponsor to HB1098, which would restore to the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources the permitting obligation and authority for injection-well uranium mines that was suspended by the legislation last year.
The mining process in question is known as in-situ leach mining. It involves injecting treated water into the ground to collect dissolved uranium, which is then pumped back to the surface for processing.
Lucas said Mark Hollenbeck, project manager for the in-situ operation proposed for the Edgemont area by the Canadian corporation Powertech Uranium, explained the process during the 2011 session and it seemed safe.
Hollenbeck also argued that requiring a state injection-well permit on top of a federal permitting process through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Environmental Protection Agency was needless duplication. He continues that argument this year in opposing HB1098.
But after a year to think about it and consider the concerns of Native Americans and others, Lucas said he is ready to reconsider the suspension of state authority on the injection-well permits for uranium.
That doesn't mean he has made up his mind.
"I want another look at it," he said. "I want to make sure that EPA permitting and oversight will protect the environment and the people."
Supporters of HB1098 say there can't be too much environmental protection where uranium is involved. Rebecca Leas, a retired health science professor from Rapid City, said state permitting is a crucial layer of protection and review that the environment and the people of South Dakota deserve.
"It's not to outlaw mining," Leas said. "We just want to know there's proper protection for us and our water. And we're just worried to death about DENR not having a full role here."
State regulators will be closer and more immediate in their responses than federal officials, she said.
"The EPA has told me that it's not in any position to have the kind of day-to-day oversight of general mining practices we need," Leas said.
DENR does have some role, even now. State environmental regulators still have authority in areas, including water rights and water discharge. There is also a role for the state in assuring proper surface use and land reclamation, Hollenbeck said.
That, and the extensive review by federal regulators in permitting uranium operations, offers a blanket of protection to the environment and South Dakota, he said. Restoring the mining permit obligation to DENR would simply add another layer of duplicative oversight, Hollenbeck said.
"I think most people realize how overregulation strangles job creation," he said. "And there really was no benefit to the environment or anybody else by having this project or any others basically be regulated twice by two different entities."
Hollenbeck pointed out the law approved last year said the state mining-permit obligation for in-situ uranium operations was suspended until South Dakota took over those chores from the federal government. The state can apply for that authority, he said.
"All the bill did last year was say that somebody's going to be in charge, and that's where we're going to get permitted," Hollenbeck said. "And the state, at this time, has chosen to let the EPA be in charge. We'd prefer that the state took control of it."
DENR officials said they will be neutral on the bill, which awaits a hearing in a House committee.
Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or firstname.lastname@example.org.