Used in the early years of America's thirst for nuclear fuel, the Riley Pass uranium mine in Harding County was one of hundreds of sites mined to provide fuel for nuclear weapons and reactors.
Companies strip-mined the site, which sprawls across 250 acres of bluffs and other land in the North Cave Hills, about five miles east of the town of Ludlow about 130 miles northwest of Rapid City. In those days, there were no regulations forcing companies to clean up old mines.
"Back in the Cold War era, there was almost sort of a gold rush going on up there for uranium," said Dan Seifert, a project coordinator for the Riley Pass mine with Custer National Forest.
But for the past 50 years, the mining site has been abandoned, and waste products known as spoils have sat exposed to the wind and rain. That allowed toxic metals and elements like arsenic, uranium, radium and thorium vulnerable to be carried away by the weather.
Now, a tangled series of court proceedings has resulted in a $179 million plan to clean up the majority of the mine site. That money is part of a settlement, announced last month by the U.S. Department of Justice and approved by a judge last week, required Anadarko Petroleum Corp. to pay a $5.15 billion settlement of fraud claims from a 2006 acquisition of Kerr-McGee.
The agreement is the largest environmental settlement ever won by the U.S. government, and about $4.5 billion is earmarked for cleaning up thousands of sites around the country contaminated by creosote and uranium debris. The rest will pay for legal claims filed by individuals
While not yet completely final, the settlement creates a trust to help clean up mine sites across the country, including the Riley Pass mine that was operational in the 1960s. The nearly $180 million could provide a rush of another kind — a flood of money that might just be big enough to clean up most of the mine and provide jobs for people who do that type of work.
"We're excited," Seifert said, "that this settlement is coming through."
Sitting idle, but not safe
Most of the former mine can be found on one of 12 different bluffs in the sparsely populated area north of Buffalo. Known as Bluff B, it includes about 150 acres of the 250-acre site and sits 500 feet away from the mine's namesake, Riley Pass, a wagon route that settlers used during the 1890s.
Other mined areas are smaller sections, often the size of a few acres, according to Seifert.
Other than a few small-scale attempts to clean parts of the mine, the site has remained as it was since the 1960s. Large piles of mining waste sit open and exposed. The settlement money would change that through the construction of pits to bury old mine tailings and then cap them with three feet of soil and vegetation, according to Seifert.
"What we're trying to do is take it, consolidate it, cap it, isolate it and keep it there forever," he said.
The clean-up plan would likely also build rock channels to transport runoff water away from contaminated areas, he added.
Research has shown the toxic metals and elements have run off the mine site into Pete’s Creek, on the east of Bluff B and Schleichart Draw on the west side, according to a risk assessment report released in 2006 by the U.S. Forest Service.
The report described conditions for people spending time in the area — identified as ranchers, hunters or Native Americans — as carrying "unacceptable" or "elevated" carcinogenic risks.
The cost of the project — $179 million — is a tentative figure and could wind up being either lower or higher, Seifert said. But he hopes to receive enough money to clean up the entire part of the Kerr-McGee/Tronox portion of Riley Pass and hopefully have money left over for long-term maintenance. While the company was the single biggest miner, covering a majority of the mine site, there were also private mines in the area.
It remains to be seen how and when the money will be doled out, and whether the Riley Pass work will happen with one big project or a series of smaller ones. "The funding level will dictate how we do the design," Seifert said.
Largest environmental settlement
The Justice Department announcement, made in April, lists $179 million toward the clean-up of the part of the Riley Pass mine that was owned by the former Fortune 500 company Kerr-McGee Corp.
The Oklahoma-based energy company was bought in 2006 by Anadarko Petroleum Corp. Later, it was found that Kerr-McGee had fraudulently moved assets around to evade debts and liability for environmental clean-up, according to a statement by the Justice Department.
The settlement is the largest environmental enforcement recovery ever by the Justice Department. Of the $5.15 billion settlement, about $4.5 billion will be used for environmental clean-up around the country, according to a Justice Department statement. The money will also go to clean up abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation, as well as at non-mining sites in Chicago, New Jersey, Nevada and Missouri.
Charmaine White Face, coordinator of Defenders of the Black Hills, an organization that promotes the clean-up of abandoned mines in the region, called the Riley Pass settlement "a good precedent."
But the Riley Pass mine is one of only 103 abandoned uranium mine sites in Harding County, according to White Face.
"What about the other 102?" White Face said. "We still need to keep on pushing for clean-up for all the abandoned mines."
Seifert says he hopes the settlement winds up being enough to get the clean-up right the first time.
"We don't want to have the whole thing wash down the site again in 20 years," he said.