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Uranium mine hearings reveal questions about proposed project

Uranium mine hearings reveal questions about proposed project

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After two weeks of public testimony, one thing has become clear about the proposed uranium mine that would operate near Edgemont: many things about the project remain unclear.

The process paperwork and permit applications surrounding the uranium mine proposed for an area near Edgemont are so complicated that no one other than mining company Powertech can decipher all the legal language. And even company officials have wavered at times in their explanation of what they will do, how much water they will use, how many jobs will be created, and what risks exist.

Attorney Michael Hickey, an opponent of the project, is one of those tasked with trying to comprehend the tens of thousands of pages of technical data the company has produced.

And that's a big problem, as Hickey told the Water Management Board during hearings held in Rapid City last week.

"It consists of nearly 80,000 pages of documents, very complex documents," said Hickey, who represents the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. "Documents that are very technical and frankly certainly beyond my comprehension and ability to understand completely."

As a pair of governor-appointed state permit boards decide whether to allow uranium mining to South Dakota, the stakes couldn't be higher, and yet the issue couldn't be murkier.

As he testified at last week's hearings, John Mays, vice president of engineering for Powertech, didn't ease the concerns of opponents who worry over potential groundwater contamination.

Under questioning, Mays refused to commit Powertech to cleaning water in the mining area to its pre-mining condition. Mays said it was a primary goal, but not a requirement.

Nor would Mays specify what other heavy metals might be extracted along with uranium and then injected back into the aquifers.

Mays testified that only uranium and vanadium — another metal the company hopes to mine — are certain to circulate in and out of the ground. As for arsenic, selenium, molybdenum, and other potentially harmful metals, Mays wouldn't say.

"What you're telling this board is that you don't really know what's in that ore yet?" Bruce Ellison asked Mays. Ellison is an attorney for Clean Water Alliance, a group of mining opponents. "You haven't done enough testing?"

Mays said those metals could turn up, but "we don't know exactly."

In at least one other in situ mine site, water after clean-up showed increased concentrations of some of those substances, according to evidence introduced by Ellison.

Dozens of leaks and violations at other in situ mines around the country show that contamination is possible. Some recent instances are only a few hours drive from Dewey-Burdock.

In 2010, Wyoming state officials found problems with contaminants moving through groundwater at the Christensen Ranch site near Gillette. The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality sent a letter to the mine's owner stating that uranium levels were "over 70 times" what was allowed in groundwater near the mine's permit boundary.

In 2011, the state of Wyoming issued a violation after up to 10,000 gallons of sodium chloride brine spilled into a dry stream at the Irigaray site of the Willow Creek mine. The mine's owner, Uranium One, took two weeks to notify the state. It should have done so in 24 hours.

Powertech attorney Max Main has objected to examples of other in situ mine violations being brought up in the hearing. 

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Other inconsistencies arise

The NRC will likely grant Powertech its full operating license in December, according to Mays. That, however, will come before a hearing disputing the commission's environmental impact statement is scheduled, according to Mays' testimony.

Despite the fact that the Atomic Energy Licensing Board has upheld those disputes, the company will get its license, according to Mays.

It's just another of the perceived inconsistencies that rankle opponents.

Opponents spent part of the hearing noting the different numbers Powertech has given. For example, the company is requesting state permission to use up to 8,500 gallons per minute of water. But in describing the mining operation to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the company said it needed only 4,000 gallons per minute.

So, too, the amount of uranium mined and the numbers of jobs Dewey-Burdock would create have changed. Mining opponents argue that this means the company's application is incomplete and should be rejected.

Powertech officials explained this as a routine changing of projections as the company tweaks its business plan.

Meanwhile, the state Division of Securities is seeking more information from Powertech about whether it has been selling stock in South Dakota without proper registration, according to news reports.

Michael Youngberg, director of the division, told the Sioux Falls Business Journal that if that were true, the company would need to register with the state and pay a late fee.

Oversight concerns

The issue of who and how the mining will be regulated remains somewhat of an open question. The North Dakota oil boom is a reminder that it's easy to be skeptical of the regulators responsible for overseeing mines.

In late September, a large oil spill was discovered that North Dakota state officials kept secret for over a week. The state initially thought only 750 barrels had spilled, but the spill proved to be some 20,000 barrels spread over 7.3 acres. Since that spill, it has been revealed that North Dakota officials have kept nearly 300 other, smaller spills secret.

South Dakota's Department of Energy and Natural Resources has given little public indication of how and to what extent it would oversee Powertech's operation. Richard Clement, the president and chief executive officer for Powertech, told the Journal during the hearings that he'd like to have at least one state inspector on-site. But the DENR cannot "directly regulate well casing materials for injection, production and monitor wells," according to Powertech's application to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mining opponents like Jim Petersen fear that contamination could rob the Black Hills of what may be its most precious resource: water.

If the region's water supply is tainted, Petersen testified that it could hinder other development.

"We've closed the door on possibility of using that water in the future... for clean industrial development, for expanded agricultural development, for massive development of retiree housing," Petersen said. "Those doors are closed by this decision."

Later on, Mays testified the projected cost of cleaning up the entire mine site to be $27 million. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which issues the company's operating license, has the authority to set the company's bond, according to previous testimony. Right now, it is unknown how much money the company will be required to post as bond.

Both state boards will make final decisions on the minerals and water permits in the coming months.

Contact Joe O'Sullivan at 394-8414 or

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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