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FORUM: Time to clean up abandoned uranium mines

FORUM: Time to clean up abandoned uranium mines


In the fall of 2003, more than 10 years ago, I was invited to look at a place where the Custer National Forest wanted to build a catch pond. The pond, however, was to be built in a place where there were ancient graves. The catch ponds were for water runoff from erosion … from a large abandoned, open pit uranium mine. I was shocked!

The information given out by Custer National Forest contained a small section on the abandoned uranium mines. When I finished looking at their map, I had counted 29. It was outrageous!

Twenty-nine abandoned, open pit uranium mines in the northwest corner of South Dakota. Today, I laugh at my mistake. After much research, the actual number is 103, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In doing the research, we eventually learned that there were also 163 abandoned uranium mines along the southwestern edge of the Black Hills north of Edgemont.

This time I wasn’t so much shocked as sickened by what this meant. Radioactive dust and radioactive particles polluting the air, the rivers, and the aquifers from these abandoned open pit mines and prospects would make people sick.

In the past 10 years, we have learned a lot about radioactive pollution from University of Michigan nuclear physics professor Dr. Kim Kearfott. We also learned that there is a way to tell the difference between naturally occurring uranium and mined uranium. There is a certain ratio between the two. Looking at the ratio tells if the uranium comes from a mine or is naturally occurring.

In 2004, a delegation from the little town of Rock Creek on the Grand River were the first to ask Defenders of the Black Hills if we could help them. They said their water was polluted from abandoned uranium mines in northwest South Dakota. They had already approached federal, state and tribal governments, but none did anything to stop the pollution of the Grand River, their drinking water source.

Shortly after that, a man from the community of Red Shirt Village in the southwest part of South Dakota asked if they could use the Cheyenne River to water their community garden. Our water tests proved that the uranium in the river was at maximum contaminant level, with both naturally occurring and mined uranium.

In 2006, we asked the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources to test where the rivers enter South Dakota. They only tested the Cheyenne River at the Wyoming border. They found that both mined and naturally occurring uranium was coming into South Dakota. Wyoming has more than 2,000 abandoned open pit uranium mines. It is coming into the Belle Fourche River as well, according to our tests.

If there was one abandoned uranium mine causing one person to be ill, that would be one too many. In South Dakota, we have 272 abandoned, open pit uranium mines. The worst part is that these mines have been spewing their hazardous emissions for nearly 60 years.

From a Cancer Mortality study by Haverkamp, the Northern Great Plains has the highest rate of cancer in the nation. That is us. It has been scientifically proven that no dose of radiation is safe.

It is long past time to clean up these extremely dangerous, abandoned, open pit uranium mines.

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