The spirit of a recent protest against a crude-oil pipeline energized opponents of a proposed southwest South Dakota uranium mine Monday during a public hearing.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hosted the hearing — the first of four this week — at the Best Western Ramkota Hotel in Rapid City, where about 100 people attended during the first few hours of the seven-hour event.
The gathering turned lively when one of the first audience members to speak, Carol Hayse, of rural Nemo, concluded her remarks with a fist-pumping chant that was joined by numerous audience members.
"Protect our water!" Hayse called to the audience. "Mni Wiconi!"
"Mni Wiconi" is a Lakota Sioux phrase that translates to "water is life." It is also the name of a rural water system that serves several Native American tribes and other users in western South Dakota. Protesters who recently and unsuccessfully sought to prevent the completion of the Dakota Access crude-oil pipeline have said the pipeline's crossing under the Missouri River in southern North Dakota puts the Mni Wiconi system at risk of contamination.
Hayse urged opponents of the uranium project to follow the example of the Dakota Access protesters.
Water quality was a main concern of people who spoke Monday against the proposed uranium mine. The EPA has issued two draft permits for the mine to Powertech, a U.S.-based division of the global Azarga Uranium Corp., and the EPA is taking oral public comments about the permits at this week's hearings and written public comments until May 19 before making a final decision.
Powertech already has a license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. If Powertech's EPA permits are finalized, the company would still need additional permits before it could start mining, including some from the state of South Dakota. Powertech has had mining rights in the Edgemont area since the mid-2000s.
The mine site would be in a sparsely populated area 13 miles northwest of the town of Edgemont, near the old Dewey and Burdock townsites along the southwest edge of the Black Hills. Groundwater at the site would be captured and combined with oxygen and carbon dioxide and then pumped back underground to leach uranium deposits from rocks in a process known as "in situ" mining. The uranium would be sold, processed and used elsewhere to produce nuclear energy.
After mining, the water would be treated to remove radioactive and other hazardous substances. After the completion of mining, the treated water would be injected back where it came from, in the Inyan Kara formation of aquifers hundreds of feet underground. The briny fluid created as a byproduct of the treatment process would be pumped deeper underground into disposal wells about 2,000 feet below the ground surface in the Minnelusa formation of aquifers.
Hayse was one of many speakers Monday to characterize the mining project as a probable water polluter.
"In situ leaching will allow poisons into our Black Hills aquifers," Hayse said.
Native American themes were also prominent in the comments from the audience. Floyd Looks for Buffalo, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, said the mining project is within the boundaries of an area set aside for the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation by treaties signed in 1851 and 1868. He said the tribes granted the United States "trespass authority" in those treaties.
"But we did not give them the water rights or the mineral rights," Looks for Buffalo said, while pledging tribal opposition to the mining project.
Marvin Kammerer, a rural Rapid City rancher, said groundwater is precious on the drought-prone plains around the Black Hills, and all water should be protected for the current and future use of local people rather than outside corporations. Kammerer predicted that even the water treated at the mine and pumped back underground would be polluted, and he rhetorically asked the EPA officials at the meeting whether they would drink any of the mine's treated water.
Mark Hollenbeck, an Edgemont-area rancher and project director for Powertech, attended the meeting but did not plan to speak (the Journal covered the first several hours of the meeting, which was scheduled to continue until 8 p.m.) Hollenbeck said in a Journal interview outside the hearing room that he would accept Kammerer's challenge.
"I would be glad to drink the treated water after it comes out of the plant," Hollenbeck said.
Hollenbeck characterized many of the public comments as incorrect.
"I don't think anybody has addressed true issues with the permits," he said. "They've just expressed a general disdain for uranium mining."
The EPA permits would allow Powertech to use underground water from the Inyan Kara formation for production wells — possibly up to a total of 4,000 production wells among 14 well fields over the life of the mining operation — and to inject waste fluid into the Minnelusa formation through as many as four deep disposal wells. The EPA is also proposing to exempt the portion of the Inyan Kara aquifer in the project area from the Safe Drinking Water Act, which is necessary for mining to occur there.
The EPA's hearings will continue today at the same location in Rapid City, Wednesday at the Mueller Center in Hot Springs, and Thursday at St. James Catholic Church in Edgemont. Each hearing will last from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. People who wish to speak are asked to sign up and speak in the order of the sign-up sheet.
There were 24 speakers on the list at Monday's meeting by about 3 p.m., and each speaker was allotted five minutes to make a statement. The EPA distributed printed information and encouraged attendees to view informational booths for about an hour at the beginning of the hearing. An EPA official then made a brief informational presentation about the mining proposal before the public-comment portion of the hearing began.