HOT SPRINGS | After a three-hour meeting marked by sharp exchanges between a project official and opponents, the Fall River County Commission voted Monday to oppose a proposed uranium mine near Edgemont.
But the five-member commission left open the possibility it could drop its opposition if Canadian-based Powertech Uranium Corp. and its U.S. affiliates provide assurances on water issues and other concerns. And Commission Chairman Mike Ortner of Hot Springs expects that to happen.
"I think four of the commissioners would not oppose it if a number of conditions are met," said Ortner, noting that the commission hasn't yet finished its list of stipulations.
Meanwhile, opponents at the meeting gave a glimpse of things to come on the controversial project. They ranged from ranchers worried about their water supplies to a Native American cultural resource specialist who said Powertech has not adequately surveyed the project area for important artifacts.
Critics made emotional speeches and fired questions at rancher Mark Hollenbeck, a former Edgemont mayor and past state legislator now working for Powertech on the proposed Dewey Burdock Project, who made the presentation to the commission.
Jim Petersen of Rapid City spoke for the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center, which has intervened in opposition to Powertech's application for state water-rights permits for the project. Petersen said the maximum water sought by Powertech would be twice the volume used in Rapid City.
That's an especially dangerous idea given the drought has returned to western South Dakota and could well mean declining groundwater that would be compounded by withdrawals by Powertech, Petersen said.
"We are going to give a foreign company our water when the bottom might drop out in the next decade or so," he said.
Petersen also worried about pollution caused by the mining process and how it might spread in underground water systems. Hollenbeck said private and state engineers have determined there is more than enough water to meet Powertech's needs without hurting other users or contaminating other water resources.
Groundwater in the portion of the formation to be mined for uranium is already of very poor quality, Hollenbeck said. The injection-extraction well systems used to dissolve and recover uranium from that formation will be designed to prevent water from escaping the system, he said.
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After an area has been "mined" with the wells, water underground will be restored to condition similar to before it was mined, Hollenbeck said. And while Powertech would be permitted to take up to 8,500 gallons of water a minute in the larger of two requested water rights, about 98 percent would be recycled. Actual consumptive use would be 170 gallons a minute or less, Hollenbeck said.
The operation will be regulated by the state, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and bonded to cover potential damages, Hollenbeck said.
That isn't enough for Dennis Yellow Thunder of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. He said surveys for cultural resources on the proposed project site have not been sufficient and tribes have not been adequately consulted. Hollenbeck defended the surveys and said tribes had been consulted but he also noted that consultation process wasn't finished.
Powertech has received what Hollenbeck calls a preliminary permit from the NRC and continues to work with the EPA. It also has applied for a large-scale state mine permit and two water-rights permits. It also needs approval for a groundwater discharge plan.
A hearing before the state Water Management Board on the water permits had been set for Dec. 5. It was delayed Monday at the request of project opponents, possibly until the board's next scheduled meeting in March.
The board's technical staff in the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has recommended approval of the water permits. Garland Erbele, chief engineer of DENR's water rights program, said Monday that Powertech's applications met key state criteria: They seek to use an available water source, would be for a beneficial use deemed in the public interest, and would not impair existing users' rights.
"A lot of the debate is on the emotional side or uranium mining," Erbele said. "While that's a valid concern, we are limited to those criteria in what we consider. And we found that it met them."
The state Water Management Board can accept or rejection that staff recommendation.
The Fall River County Commission hoped to intervene as a neutral party in the water-rights process so it could be more involved without taking a position either way. But the process requires interveners to take a position, so commissioners voted to petition for intervener status as opponents, at least until their concerns are answered, Ortner said.
Hollenbeck said he is confident that Powertech can give the commission the assurances it wants.