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Powertech wants to mine for uranium in a semi-arid area of grasslands near Edgemont, along the southwestern edge of the Black Hills.

A public hearing today in Rapid City will pit a tribe against a mining company and government regulators in a dispute about places of Native American cultural, historical and religious significance that may lie within the boundaries of a proposed uranium mine.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe, which is headquartered on the Pine Ridge Reservation, contends that the federal government has done too little to study the potential effects that a proposed uranium mine near Edgemont could have on Native American burials, artifacts or other cultural sites.

In written testimony filed in advance of the hearing, tribal experts argued that any harm done to cultural resources, especially to burials and artifacts, “will be an irreparable injury to the very identity of the tribe.”

Regulators from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission contend that they have done everything within their power to study the potential impacts on tribal cultural resources. The company that is proposing the mine — Powertech, a subsidiary of Canada-based Azarga Uranium — agrees with the government.

In a written statement of position, Powertech argues that the tribe has refused to fully cooperate with a plan to conduct an on-the-ground cultural resources survey at the proposed mine site. Powertech asserts that the tribe and other intervenors have sought only to “further delay the project’s development.”

Beginning at 10 a.m. today at the Hotel Alex Johnson in Rapid City and potentially continuing on Thursday and Friday, the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board will hear opening arguments from the tribe, Powertech and other intervenors, and then the board’s three administrative judges will question witnesses. The public is welcome to attend, but only the officially involved parties will be allowed to participate.

The board could issue a decision by Nov. 29, according to its schedule. If the board sides with the regulators and Powertech, the last remaining contention attached to Powertech’s NRC license would be resolved. That would pave the way for Powertech to seek additional federal, state and local permits it needs before it can begin mining (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reopened a comment period Tuesday for permits it is considering, and the agency also scheduled a public hearing Oct. 5 in Hot Springs).

Or, the board could side with the tribe, which wants an order setting aside Powertech’s license and requiring an adequate cultural resources survey.

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The proposed mine location is 13 miles northwest of Edgemont, near the abandoned community of Burdock and the hamlet of Dewey along the southwest edge of the Black Hills. The Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Pine Ridge Reservation is about 50 miles east of there, but the Black Hills were part of the former Great Sioux Reservation and are a fixture of of traditional religious beliefs held by multiple tribes.

Powertech plans to conduct “in situ” mining, which does not include traditional open pits or tunnels. Instead, well fields would be developed across a 17-square-mile area to inject a water-based solution underground, dissolve the uranium, and bring it to the surface for processing and use in nuclear power plants. Wastewater would be injected back underground.

Controversy over tribal cultural resources within the proposed mine boundaries began as early as 2009, when Powertech applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a license. The commission issued the license in 2014, even though the lack of an adequate cultural resources site survey remained an unresolved contention at the time.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided to leave the license in effect while seeking to resolve the contention. The Oglala Sioux Tribe challenged that decision and won a favorable ruling in 2018 from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

The court said the NRC violated the National Environmental Policy Act by leaving Powertech’s license in effect without a cultural-resources site survey. Yet the court did not vacate Powertech’s license. Instead, the court remanded the matter back to the NRC for further proceedings.

Since then, according to the NRC, efforts to negotiate a site-survey methodology with the tribe have been fruitless. The dispute is multifaceted and has included arguments about the appropriate contractor, the need for interviews with tribal elders, the cost and funding of the survey, the inclusion of additional tribes, and other factors.

In April, the NRC declared an impasse and asked the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board to settle the dispute, which led to the scheduling of this week’s hearing.

The hearing will be at least the fifth time that hearings on the Powertech mine proposal have been conducted in Rapid City. Past hearings were conducted in 2017 by the EPA, in 2014 by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, and in 2013 by the South Dakota Water Management Board and the South Dakota Board of Minerals and Environment.

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Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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