As the Environmental Protection Agency reviews permit applications for Powertech's plan for in situ uranium-recovery mining in southwestern South Dakota, the agency is poised to roll out new, more stringent water quality standards.
But how the proposed new standards will affect Powertech's Dewey-Burdock permit applications is unclear.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy signed a draft of the proposed rules on Dec. 31. A 90-day public-comment period on the new "Health and Environmental Protection Standards for Uranium and Thorium Mill Tailings" opens when the final draft is published in the Federal Register. The publication date is uncertain.
"These new standards may not apply to the current application" by Powertech, said David Ganje, an environmental attorney with offices in Rapid City and Albany, N.Y. Ganje described the new rules as "clearer, crisper, harder."
But Ganje added the proposed new rules would affect any future in situ mining operations
An EPA fact sheet on the new rules says that the original standards were issued 1983 and revised in 1995. Since that time, in situ recovery, which uses water injected into the ground to recover uranium, has become a prominent method of uranium extraction in the U.S. The standards do not address "the alteration of groundwater that occurs during the (in situ) process," according to the fact sheet.
In situ recovery has a greater potential to directly harm groundwater than does the conventional process for extracting uranium from ore, according to the EPA document.
The proposed standards will regulate by-product materials above and below the ground, with a "primary focus on groundwater protection, restoration and stability."
Opponents of in situ mining welcome the pending rules changes.
"It is really exciting and refreshing," said Becky Leas of Rapid City. Leas, a member of Dakota Rural Action and the Clean Water Alliance, has studied Powertech's plans for the last four years.
The EPA's new stance makes a lot of sense with water becoming a resource of primary concern across the country, Leas said.
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"In my opinion as a health professional (the EPA has) been too slow about this, but I'm really excited about them addressing this," Leas said.
Powertech's project manager, Mark Hollenbeck of Edgemont, said the proposed rules should not have a significant effect on in situ mining. But he acknowledged he has not read the proposal.
"I don't think it changes much, they pretty much follow what NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) does," Hollenbeck said Wednesday.
Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board has approved Powertech's permit to use in situ mining to extract uranium, that permit was put on hold when several groups challenged it. The decision is expected within the next few months, Hollenbeck said.
The EPA has yet to issue Powertech the necessary permits.
"We are working toward proposing decisions on" the Powertech permits, Lisa McClain-Vanderpool, public affairs specialist with EPA's Region 8 Office in Denver, wrote in an email.
McClain-Vanderpool would not comment on what effect, if any, the new standards would have on the Dewey-Burdock permitting process.
It is a complicated legal question that would depend on the status of the application with other regulatory bodies, according to Ganje.
The proposed standards will require that a mining operation comply with the most stringent requirements of three different, separate federal mining laws, Ganje said. Those laws are the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Resource Conservation Recovery Act and the Uranium Tailings Act.
Once the standards are passed, the state would have to comply with those standards, Ganje said.
Because of the contentious nature of the issue, hearings on Powertech's applications before the state Board of Minerals and Environment and the Water Management Board have been postponed until after the NRC permitting process is completed.