CRAWFORD, Neb. | On the surface, it doesn't look like a uranium mine.
On both sides of a dusty gravel road a few miles southeast of town, the Crow Butte mine is visible above the grassy surface only via evenly spaced boxes the size of commercial bee hives or by way of sections of corrugated plastic pipe with covered ends sticking up a couple feet above the ground.
Each small above-ground unit is a well head, part of a system of 5,400 wells that use a solution of water, oxygen and bicarbonate to capture uranium particles hundreds of feet underground and bring it to a processing plant on the surface at the rate of 400 tons a year.
Unlike how uranium was mined decades ago, here there are no growling machines gouging out chunks of land on the surface. No open pits. No piles of waste tailings.
This is underground uranium mining, but without the shafts or crews of miners working with hand tools and explosives down below.
"We don't have many moving parts here," said Ken Vaughn, a spokesman for Cameco Resources that owns the Crow Butte Operation located just outside Crawford, about 25 miles west of Chadron, Neb. "We're basically a glorified water softener."
But it's a big softener that casts a controversial shadow. And it offers a glimpse of what could be coming to the southern Black Hills if a mining plan by Powertech Uranium is approved by state and federal regulators.
To learn more, three members of the Fall River County Commission have visited Crow Butte, and soon two more commissioners — along with a commissioner or two from adjoining Custer County — are scheduled to tour the site in January.
The proposed Powertech mine, like the one at Crow Butte, would be an in situ mine, from the Latin for "in place" or "on site." The proposed mine would operate about 13 miles northwest of Edgemont on land that is in both Fall River and Custer counties.
A past visit to Crow Butte helped Fall River County Commission Chairman Mike Ortner get more comfortable with welcoming the Powertech operation to his county.
"I think they've got a heck of an operation down there at Crawford," Ortner said. "And I think the operation here could be the same, with the right conditions."
But not everyone is sold on the plan just yet. Dueling versions of the risks and rewards the Powertech plan may create have arisen at heated community meetings, in discussions between neighbors and public officials, and in the editorial pages of area newspapers. A closer look at the Crawford operation could shed more light on what the Powertech plan might mean for the Black Hills, its environment, its economy and its people.
Violations, but no disasters
The Crow Butte mine includes a series of 5,400 wells in an injection and collection system that directly affects 1,250 acres of a larger permitted mine site of more than 2,800 acres.
But instead of filtering out minerals like calcium and magnesium as a regular water softener would do, the in situ system collects uranium, the radioactive element that was once used in atomic weapons but now is mostly produced to run nuclear power plants.
Production from the Crow Butte Operation totals more than 800,000 pounds a year, helping to keep Canada-based Cameco among the world's leaders in uranium production.
And so far they have done it at Crow Butte without the kind of environmental devastation that critics of the Powertech plan predict for the Edgemont area, and even beyond, if that mine is approved.
The Crow Butte mine has been in operation for 21 years without sucking dry aquifers or poisoning groundwater. But that is not to say it has been free of problems or reason for concern.
Lilias Jarding of Rapid City, a member of the Clean Water Alliance who holds a Ph.D. in environmental policy, points to more than 50 cited violations of Crow Butte's operating license between 1997 and 2012.
The problems included wells that failed performance tests, the migration, or "excursion," of water from the area being mined underground and leaks in evaporation ponds on the surface.
In 2008, a district court in Nebraska imposed a $50,000 penalty on Crow Butte for violations including a surface spill, well operations that had the potential to contaminate drinking water and delays in reporting violations.
Jarding thinks there could be other problems not yet known and she worries about greater problems in the future.
"What happens when these mines are closed is an issue," Jarding said. "The mining process loosens up these contaminants and puts them in the water. There's no evidence that can be reversed. These contaminants stay in the water."
Doug Pavlick, operations manager for the Crow Butte Operation, said the in situ system is designed to keep injected mining solution — a mix of water, oxygen and baking soda that mobilizes the uranium — in the mining zone. And that zone is well below the rock formation that holds drinking water.
A system of monitoring wells in the drinking water aquifer and on the perimeter of the uranium formation being mined hundreds of feet below it assure that no migration from the mine area or contamination of the drinking water occurs, Pavlick said.
The "excursion" violations mentioned by Jarding were instances where monitoring wells detected changes in the groundwater moving out from the mining zone, he said. The pressure in the well field was then changed to draw that water back toward the recovery well before any of the actual uranium even reached the monitoring wells, he said.
The leaks in the surface pond were only in the first liner of the pond. They were caught in a detection system and rectified, never escaping the second liner, Pavlick said.
Wells cited for failing tests were either repaired or shut down and sealed. Then mine officials worked with state environmental regulators to assure the well hadn't leaked, which would be "very unusual," and mitigated quickly, Pavlick said.
Even the problems resulting in the $50,000 fine never resulted in the detection of any drinking-water contamination, he said.
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That's the last thing anyone on the staff would want, Pavlick said.
"We work very hard to make sure we do things correctly," he said. "Our folks are really tied to the community. There is a strong sense of stewardship in the work we do here."
Worries over water
Dave Carlson, a retired official for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, was for 20 years a regular on-site monitor at the Crow Butte Operation for the state. DEQ made a commitment to that type of oversight in part in response to controversy over the mining operation early in its life, Carlson said.
"The truth is a lot of the opposition comes from ignorance," he said. "People talk about them ruining the aquifer. We can say with about 99.9 percent certainty that they're incorrect."
Carlson said he had a good working relationship with Crow Butte officials, something DEQ and the mine have maintained with two new staffers who regularly check the operation.
Jarding and other in situ critics also worry about the heavy water use in the in situ process as posing threats to water supplies. She points to one water right being sought from the state of South Dakota by Powertech that would authorize up to 8,500 gallons per minute to be used.
"They're re-circulating that, but some of it will be lost and some of it will be contaminated," Jarding said.
Powertech officials have estimated that 98 percent or more of that maximum of 8,500 gallons per second requested in one of the permit applications for the Edgemont mine would be re-circulated. And that has been the experience at Crow Butte, where 1 percent to 1.5 percent of the water taken is actually lost.
The total water consumed in the mining process is what would be used by a center-pivot operation to irrigate 225 acres of corn, Crow Butte officials say.
Economic impact in millions
Along with periodic controversy, Crow Butte has produced millions of dollars in property, sales and severance taxes for state and local governments. it has also created dozens of jobs and paid royalties to landowners that topped $900,000 in 2011.
The operation has 69 employees and 20 contract workers. It has a payroll of $4.2 million. It made purchases worth more than $5.4 million with Nebraska vendors in 2011, officials say.
"If we can buy it locally, that's our mode of operation," Pavlick said.
Fall River County Commissioner Deb Russell jotted down the economic impact figures and other information last week during her tour of the mine. Russell, a member of the Fall River County Commission from Oral, joined county resident Ray Palmer as guests of Cameco Resources for a four-hour visit to its Crow Butte Operation southeast of Crawford.
Ortner, the commissioner from Hot Springs, and Commissioner Joe Falkenburg of Edgemont have already toured the site. Commissioners Anne Cassens of Edgemont and Joe Allen of Hot Springs are expected to tour it in January.
The tour last week eased some of Russell's worries and answered some questions about the uranium proposal for Edgemont. But it raised questions for her, too. They include whether South Dakota would have an environmental inspector at the Powertech site for regular checks, as the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality does at Crow Butte.
"If the state were to say 'no' to that, that they're not going to make that kind of an investment, it might be a deal-breaker for me," Russell said. "I think it's important to have somebody at site, somebody not paid by the company, to monitor things, just for reassurance."
County officials engaged
The Fall River County Commission doesn’t have authority to approve or reject the Powertech plan. Those are federal and state issues. But the commission does have an interest in the impacts of the mining operation proposed by Powertech.
The commission has engaged in Powertech's state permitting process as an "intervener." Commissioners initially hoped to intervene as a neutral party but were told they needed to take a position, at least initially. So they voted to come out as opponents, at least for the process of information gathering.
The commission is developing a set of conditions they'd like to see agreed to by Powertech before they offer support to the project. Powertech officials so far are cooperating on that.
"We're kind of waiting for the rest of the commission to do this tour," Russell said. "After everyone's been there, we'll talk."
The January tour for Cassens and Allen will also likely include Custer County Commissioner Dave Hazeltine of Custer and possibly another Custer County commissioner.
Custer County hasn't sought "intervener" status and Hazeltine said he wasn't sure how far the commission would get involved. But it is important to study the issue, he said.
"I'm being completely open minded at this time," Hazeltine said. "Whether we're going to get asked to take a position, I don't know. All of us have gone down to Edgemont to look at that area down there. And I'd like to see how they do it at Crawford, too."
Russell said it's worth the trip.
"I'm really glad I went," she said. "I've seen the pictures, but that doesn't tell you anything like being there."