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Opponents challenge uranium mine expansion

Opponents challenge uranium mine expansion

  • Updated

CHADRON, Neb. - Members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's licensing and safety division will continue hearing arguments today on the proposed expansion of the Crow Butte Resources uranium mine near Crawford after an all-day session here Wednesday.

Two individuals and three organizations are arguing against allowing the 2,100-acre expansion of the existing in situ leach mine southwest of Crawford, saying mining endangers water quality in the adjacent area and as far away as Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

A panel of three administrative law judges heard arguments first on whether the petitioners had standing to contest the mine's plan, and later on the first of six specific objections to the expansion.

Seeking to block the mine expansion are Tom Cook of Chadron and Debra White Plume of Pine Ridge, S.D., the Slim Buttes Agricultural Development Corp., Owe Aku, a nonprofit Oglala Lakota cultural group from Pine Ridge, and the Western Nebraska Resources Council.

Canadian-owned Cameco Corp. owns and operates the Crow Butte mine, which recovers uranium from underground sandstone layers by pumping a solution of water and bicarbonate into the ore body, then pumping out the solution and recovering the dissolved uranium. The existing mine, which has been in operation since 1991, produces about 800,000 pounds of yellowcake uranium each year. The material is used in the nuclear fuel industry.

The mine's proposed expansion lies about a half-mile north of Crawford.

The company said in its permit application that the new area would yield between 500,000 and 600,000 pounds of uranium oxide per year and be active for about 11 years.

The people and groups opposing the mine have an interest in the issue because they rely on underground water supplies, which could be contaminated by the mine's expansion, said David Frankel, attorney for Tom Cook, the Slim Buttes development group and the Western Nebraska Resources Council. Cook lives about 20 miles from the Crow Butte mine, and family gardens planted by members of the Slim Buttes Agricultural Development Corp are 30 to 40 miles away, he said. "Water does travel," he said. "If there is mining that contaminates well water, that defeats the purpose of the organization."

For members of Owe Aku, the purity and quality of water are significant because of the importance of water to Lakota culture, attorney Bruce Ellison said.

The possibility of water contamination exists because of fractures in the underground layers of rock that allow intermingling of the Chadron aquifer, where water for mining is drawn, with the Brule and High Plains aquifers, which provide drinking and irrigation water in the region, including on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the attorneys said.

"There is mixing of the aquifers," Ellison said. "If there is underground contamination, it might take years to affect the Pine Ridge reservation. You can't just look at today; you have to look at generations."

But attorneys for the regulatory commission and for Crow Butte disputed the contention.

The Chadron aquifer is separated from other water-bearing layers by 100 to 200 feet of impermeable material, and the Pine Ridge reservation is far from the mine, scommission staff attorney Marcia Simon aid. "You are talking 20 to 60 miles. That's a very long distance," she said. "The petitioners have to show plausible harm."

There is no connection between the aquifers, and flow rate in the Chadron aquifer is only 10 feet per year, Tyson Smith, attorney for Crow Butte Resources, said. In addition, the mine's operation is designed to prevent water contamination and monitoring wells insure that any "excursions" are detected and taken care of, he said. "Individuals living 40 to 50 miles away can't be affected," Smith said. "Testing determined the aquifers are hydrologically separate."

To support their arguments, Ellison and Frankel offered a statement by Chadron State College geology teacher Hannan LaGarry that said fractures in the underground layers of rock do allow intermingling of water from different aquifers. They also produced a letter from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality to Crow Butte Resources that challenged some of the data provided in the mine's "Request for Aquifer Exemption."

Attorneys for the NRC and the mine said they were unable to respond to those documents, however, because they were introduced on the day of the hearing.

The audience at Wednesday's hearing included a large contingent of young people from the Pine Ridge reservation, as well as two tribal leaders, Joe American Horse and Oliver Red Cloud. In statements to the NRC judges, the two said they are concerned about water quality, and they also believe treaties between the Lakota and the U.S. government in the 1800s give the tribe rights to land and minerals in the area. "This water still belongs to Lakota people," Red Cloud said.

Administrative law judge Ann Marshall Young, who is presiding over the hearing, said that the panel would take the arguments under advisement and issue decisions later.

That could mean additional hearings if the panel decides the petitioners have standing to pursue their objections, Crow Butte mine manager Jim Stokey said.

Similar hearings were held at Fort Robinson State Park when the mine obtained its initial permit from the NRC, a process that took about two years, Stokey said.

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