The state Water Management Board voted 5-1 on Thursday in Pierre to approve a temporary water permit for an exploratory gold drilling project in the Black Hills, despite opposition from a group of about 15 individuals and organizations.
The approval means that Mineral Mountain Resources, a Canadian company, will be allowed to withdraw water for free from Rapid Creek from now through Dec. 31 at a spot just east of the small community of Rochford in the north-central Black Hills.
The Water Management Board, which consists of seven members appointed by the governor, based its decision partially on information provided by Mark Rath, an engineer for the Water Rights Program of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Rath said a wet year in the Black Hills has filled the Pactola Reservoir — which is on Rapid Creek downstream from the Mineral Mountain drilling project — to about 1 foot above its target level for the winter and larger-than-usual releases from the reservoir are planned for the coming months.
“So there is sufficient water there to get us through the end of the year,” Rath said.
The Rapid Creek stream gauge closest to the drilling project is at Silver City. Rath said the flow rate there on Thursday morning was 46 cubic feet per second. The maximum withdrawal rate allowed by the permit granted to Mineral Mountain Resources is 0.45 cubic feet per second, up to a daily maximum withdrawal of 10,000 gallons and a total maximum withdrawal of 880,000 gallons.
The company has already drilled nine deep holes averaging about 1,000 feet in length — and has permission from state government to drill up to 111 more holes — at 10 drilling sites on privately owned land in a mountainous and forested area near the historical Standby Mine. The company has also submitted a plan of operations, which is under review by the U.S. Forest Service, for additional drilling sites on nearby public land in the Black Hills National Forest.
Water is used during the drilling process to cool and lubricate the drill. Core samples are collected from the holes and are being analyzed to determine whether there is enough economically recoverable gold for a mine. A mining operation would need separate approval from state regulators and would be subject to a public review.
Without a temporary water permit, Mineral Mountain Resources had most recently been buying water from the city of Lead and hauling it to the drilling sites. A lawyer for Mineral Mountain Resources, Matthew Naasz, of Gunderson, Palmer, Nelson & Ashmore in Rapid City, told the Water Management Board that permission to withdraw water from Rapid Creek near the drilling sites would enable the addition of a second shift to the drilling project.
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The Water Management Board received written comments from about 15 opponents of the permit application, including private citizens, Native American tribal officials and the Izaak Walton League (an outdoor conservation organization). Six people from among those opponents spoke at the meeting.
Some of the speakers expressed opposition to further gold mining in the Black Hills, which has been subject to mining since the 1870s and is still the site of one large-scale gold mine, the Wharf Mine, near Lead.
“How might you justify destroying this beauty, economic viability, and spiritual value for a mine that despoils everything in its path?” said written comments from Carol Hayse, of Nemo, who also spoke at the meeting. “Mining withdraws, then adds toxic pollutants to the water. The water can never be restored to its original state.”
Naasz, the attorney for Mineral Mountain Resources, countered by saying, “This is not about a mining permit.”
“This is a temporary use for drilling purposes of a small amount of water that is clearly and obviously available,” Naasz said.
The temporary permit granted by the Water Management Board includes a number of qualifications as proposed by the chief engineer of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Among those qualifications is a requirement for Mineral Mountain Resources to meter its water usage and report it monthly, and a prohibition against impeding use of the Mickelson Trail, which is near the spot where water will be withdrawn from Rapid Creek.
Chief Engineer Jeanne Goodman also said in her written recommendation to the board that if Mineral Mountain Resources wants to continue drilling beyond the Dec. 31 expiration of the temporary permit, the company should then apply for a standard rather than temporary permit, “because the use of water for a multi-year project is beyond the intent of temporary permitting to use public water.”
Mineral Mountain Resources previously had a temporary water permit that expired May 1, which it initially sought to renew before withdrawing the renewal application amid increasingly vocal criticism from opponents.
Voting in favor of granting the new temporary permit Thursday were board members Chad Comes, of Madison; Peggy Dixon, of Rapid City; Everett Hoyt, of Rapid City; Leo Holzbauer, of Wagner; and James Hutmacher, of Oacoma. Voting against the granting of the permit was Timothy Bjork, of Pierre. Board member Rodney Freeman, of Huron, was absent.