The first week of highly anticipated state permit hearings on a proposed uranium mine ended with a slew of public testimony, a host of objections and only a handful of witnesses called.
But the testimony before the state Board of Minerals and Environment, presented in a unique format not unlike a jury trial, did bring some new revelations about Powertech Uranium's proposal for in situ uranium mining near Edgemont.
One revelation that came to light during the hearings is that the project is likely to start in the Dewey area. Another is that the company would prefer to dispose of its wastewater in deep underground wells that reach into the Deadwood and Minnelusa aquifers. The company also revealed it will also mine for another mineral, vanadium, that is used to make car and jet parts.
That none of those points are specifically listed in the company's permit applications has been a point of contention and heightened fears of mine opponents. Before the hearings began, Michael Hickey, attorney for the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, argued that the board must reject the permit since those omitted details render Powertech's applications incomplete.
The proposed Dewey-Burdock mine, which would be about 15 miles northwest of Edgemont, would employ in situ mining — meaning the company would inject oxygenated water into the ground to absorb uranium. The water would be pumped back to the surface, where the uranium would be extracted and processed.
Throughout the week, opponents railed against the project in hearings at the Best Western Ramkota in Rapid City, worrying that it will pollute or drain the region's aquifers. They argue that potential contamination could harm wildlife and livestock, and that the South Dakota Legislature's removal of state regulation over the project in favor of only federal monitoring may hinder oversight.
Mine proponents argue that it will bring jobs to the Edgemont area and tax revenue to the region and state. And the company says its science is sound, and that the mining can be conducted safely.
Also discovered during the hearings: that the state board won't make a ruling on the permit request anytime soon. Instead, the hearings will continue in November where they left off Friday and a decision will be made after that.
Mining for vanadium
Perhaps the biggest revelation last week was that Canada-based Powertech would also like to mine for vanadium, a metal that in some variants is slightly radioactive. The metal is used for steel alloys that are resistant to shock and corrosion in products such as gears for cars, jet engine parts and cutting tools.
If it mines vanadium, Powertech must inform the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources of its "updated process and facilities," according to a statement read by Hickey during the cross-examination. In order to get approval for it, the company would have to go through another permitting process, Richard Blubaugh, a vice president with Powertech, said during testimony.
A hydrologist for Powertech also revealed during testimony that the DENR doesn't appear to have any authority around the mining wells. The state, however, would be able to regulate any contamination that moves out of the vicinity of the wells, according to Hal Demuth, a hydrologist employed by Powertech.
Bruce Ellison, attorney for the Clean Water Alliance, an umbrella group of organizations opposing the mine, said he was surprised about the state's lack of jurisdiction.
If accurate, that means the state does not have "any ability to control or prevent that contamination from ever happening," Ellison said.
Ellison described it as a consequence of Senate Bill 158. In 2011, the state Legislature voted to approve the bill, which suspended state oversight of South Dakota's injection well and in situ mining laws.
"It really suggests the extreme nature of what S.B. 158 was designed to do," he added.
The bill haunted the hearing earlier in the week, as several individual opponents to the mine — known as interveners — tried to question Powertech's employees and executives about the bill, which was written by a Powertech lobbyist. But their line of questioning was largely rejected by the board as being not directly related to the company's permit application.
'Look at the proof'
In the back-and-forth of the testimony and questioning and arguments, both sides found reason for optimism. Jerri Baker, a Hot Springs resident and hearing intervener who opposes the project, has mixed feelings about how the hearings played out.
"Some days it seems like there's hope, things are going to go well for the public, and then there are days that it seems like it's going to go well for the corporation," said Baker during a break in the hearings.
"If you look at the proof," she said. "I think we'll win."
But the proof, says Dewey-Burdock Project Manager Mark Hollenbeck, lies in the company's presentation at the hearings.
Powertech honed in on the basic science of aquifers. Since elevation levels taper off around the project, groundwater will flow away to the southwest, and away from population centers, company hydrologist Hal Demuth said.
Demuth also spoke in-depth on how it is difficult for water to move between aquifers, because of shale beds that move separate the different aquifers.
"I think he's doing a great job showing how this process does work, and why it does work safely," said Hollenbeck.
Rodney Knudson, 77, spent the week driving to Rapid City from his home in Hulett, Wyo. Knudson, a retired teacher and librarian who opposes the mine, praised hearing chairman Rex Hagg's as being fair during the hearing.
But the testimony by Powertech officials did not ease his concerns.
"There are too many examples, unfortunately of (in situ) operations that have gone awry," Knudson said.
The contested hearing format — which is similar to a jury trial — will continue in Rapid City during the week of Nov. 11 to 15. Hagg said the board won't discuss anything regarding the case between now and then. Meanwhile, permits on water usage will begin later this month, and also extend further into the fall.