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An "in situ" uranium mine isn't the open-pit mine that your grandparents may remember: backers say it is clean, safe, virtually hidden from view, and does not scar the earth.

For seven years that has been the promise of Powertech, a Canadian company that is proposing to build South Dakota's first in situ leach uranium mine — a $51 million project that would draw uranium from beneath the surface of the land near Edgemont.

But as the company reaches a critical stage in its permitting process, that promise has come under increasing fire from critics in South Dakota worried about the project's possible environmental impact. The result has been a tense back and forth this year between Powertech and its opponents, with each side accusing the other of spinning the truth and manipulating the facts.

To separate fact from fiction, the Journal spent the past month investigating the claims of both Powertech and project critics. The Journal interviewed more than a dozen sources, from hydrologists to regulators, from environmental lawyers to industry spokespeople, and reviewed scores of academic reports, newspaper clippings, and state records on the environmental impacts of ISL uranium mines.

The newspaper's findings include:

• While no mining venture can prevent all risk, some in situ mines have had a dubious track record of regulatory compliance; from a mine in Texas that exposed workers in the 1980s to dangerously high levels of radiation, to a mine in Wyoming in 2008 that earned a $1.4 million fine from the state for failing to restore contaminated groundwater as promised.

• There is consensus among federal regulators that, despite the promises of mining companies, groundwater at a mining site cannot be restored to its pre-mining condition. In every instance, regulators have had to relax restoration standards because escalated concentrations of certain chemicals, like uranium and arsenic, could not be reduced.

• There is relatively little research on the movement of chemicals, like uranium, in groundwater once mining is finished. An analysis of groundwater samples by a hydrologist in Texas this year shows the first potential evidence of uranium flowing into a livestock well from a nearby mine. The state of Texas disputes those findings.

• The regulation of in situ mining varies from state to state, but South Dakota could be particularly vulnerable to environmental risks due to a weakening of regulations and the state's abandonment of its rights to regulate mine operations.

Mark Hollenbeck, local project manager of Powertech, maintains that the claims against in situ mining operations are largely based around fear of the unknown.

He said in situ mining has become the preferred method to extract uranium across the country over the past 40 years, largely due to its benign impact on the environment. Rather than digging down to reach uranium as in conventional strip mining, an in situ operation instead pumps water into the ground and redraws that water, then laced with uranium, back to the surface. 

That uranium is then transported to a processing plant where it is transformed into uranium rods to fuel nuclear power plants. 

Hollenbeck argues that not only is the project beneficial to American energy independence, it will be an economic boon for the southern Black Hills.

"Any time you add 100 jobs in a rural area in South Dakota it's a big deal," he said. "And these aren't minimum-wage jobs, these are jobs you can raise a family with."

But critics, including an array of environmental groups and area residents, say those short-term benefits aren't worth the long-term risks.

Beginning today at the Best Western Ramkota hotel in Rapid City, dozens of attorneys, activists, and area residents will offer public testimony against Powertech's proposed mine. The hearing, held by the State Board of Minerals and Environment, is expected to last all week.

For those testifying, like Bruce Ellison, an attorney for the Clean Water Alliance, it's a showdown that he believes every South Dakotan should be watching closely.

"Hopefully we are going to show there's too many unanswered questions," he said. "Why should we put our water at risk?"

Past in situ problems

South Dakotans don't have to look far to see how in situ mines have operated in other communities.

While uranium mining is a niche industry, in situ mines are largely clustered around the uranium-rich lands of Wyoming. South Dakota's western neighbor hosts three of the six in situ sites currently operating in the U.S.

For in situ critics like Shannon Anderson, an organizer based in Sheridan, Wyo. for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, Wyoming's experience demonstrates the problems with in situ mining.

"I think it's important that if you're getting into this industry you know the history of what's happened in other states," she said.

Among the biggest issues, Anderson says, is the incident that led to a $1.4 million settlement the state reached with one mining company in 2008 over frequent violations.

At the Smith Ranch-Highland site, in Eastern Wyoming, the state found an "inordinate number of spills, leaks and other releases." The state also found that the company, Power Resources, was significantly under-budgeting for reclamation and that it was shirking its promises to restore contaminated groundwater.

At that mine and others in Wyoming, Anderson is particularly concerned about violations relating to what the industry calls "excursions." An excursion is an early warning signal that chemicals pumped into the ground, or loosened by the pumping process, are beginning to drift through groundwater away from the site. When excursions are detected, in situ operations are supposed to adjust pumping methods so chemicals are drawn back.

An excursion itself does not imply that chemicals have migrated outside of the site, but critics fear that when excursions are detected, companies do not always adequately contain those chemicals, and that they have the potential to contaminate surrounding water supplies.

In 2010, a state geologist studied a long-running excursion at the Willow Creek site in Eastern Wyoming. The geologist found uranium levels were more than 70 times the maximum contamination level at the edge of the company's permit boundaries, as later reported by ProPublica, a non-profit news service.

Anderson said those types of problems suggest an industry that either has a blasé attitude toward regulations, or an inability to safely conduct operations.

"I know there are inspection and compliance problems for most of the industry," she said.

But state regulators and the industry dispute that assertion.

Nancy Nuttbrock, administrator of the land quality division for Wyoming's Department of Environmental Quality, said many of the in situ violations are for isolated incidents.

"Generally speaking, the operators are diligent about their compliance efforts," she said.

Nuttbrock said that the state's settlement with Power Resources was a rare event. She said it had sent a message that other operators should pay close attention to restoration agreements.

Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, also said most violations within the in situ industry are for small issues.

"There were violations but most of them were leaks on the surface that could have been controlled, and should have been controlled," he said. "They weren't because they weren't restoring the aquifer or they were mining improperly. Some were paperwork violations that shouldn't happen either, but they weren't violations that harm the groundwater or the aquifer."

Anderson responded that both Nuttbrock and Loomis are not entirely accurate in their assessments.

She also said it wasn't fair to suggest there haven't been issues relating to restoration; she said the $1.4 million settlement against the Smith Ranch-Highland was closely related to the company's lax restoration efforts.

"There was definitely a component of the company putting an emphasis on mining rather than restoration," she said. "And restoration was taking years longer than anticipated, which we have seen at all of these mines."

Anderson was also skeptical that the $1.4 million fine had necessarily sent a message to the industry. She said Smith Ranch-Highland had continued to rack up violations after the fine.

According to state records, Wyoming has fined Power Resources a total of $88,000 since September 2008. The issues ranged from improperly capping drilling holes to failing to perform groundwater tests.

Asked how Powertech would avoid issues that happened at other in situ sites, Hollenbeck released a detailed response to the Journal describing the safety features at its proposed mine.

"So it's not so much you can have a perfect system that doesn't ever have an issue, it's how you handle issues," he said. "And if you have leaks, how you mitigate those."

Can water be restored?

But beyond how well Powertech may follow state and federal rules, what critics worry most is that those rules themselves are systemically flawed.

One of their biggest concerns relates to the restoration of groundwater. Concentrations of chemicals like uranium increase drastically in the groundwater of an in situ site during its operation. Under federal regulations, when a company has finished mining, it is required to restore groundwater to its pre-mining quality by pumping fresh water into it.

But Rich Abitz, a Cincinnati-based geo-chemist who has studied in situ operations, said that the restoration process comes with important caveats.

In every instance that state or federal regulatory authorities have overseen the restoration of an in situ site, they have relaxed their definition of "pre-mining" water quality for mining companies.

That happens, Abitz said, because full restoration of groundwater at an in situ site is virtually impossible.

"This is something that has been developed over tens of thousands of years," he said. "You can't go and disturb that chemical environment and expect that to return to its initial state in a few decades."

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a federal agency which plays a leading role in regulation of most in situ sites in the U.S., acknowledges that full restoration is not possible.

In a 2009 report, NRC staff reported that mines appear unable to reduce escalated levels of certain chemicals in groundwater, particularly iron, manganese, arsenic, selenium, uranium, vanadium, and radium-226. Escalated levels of those elements are generally unsafe for human consumption.

Eric Jantz, a staff attorney for the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, said another problem with in situ restoration is that data on the water's pre-mine condition is usually distorted to begin with.

Jantz said mining companies themselves do the bulk of water testing and supply that information to federal regulators. Companies tend to cherry pick data that makes groundwater appear unusable so that they can gain permits to begin mining. As a byproduct, that means pre-mine quality is rarely an accurate picture of water quality.

Jantz is fighting a long-proposed mine near Crownpoint, N.M., on behalf of local communities. Jantz said that the company behind the project, Uranium Resources, was able to earn a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency in 1989 because it convinced the agency that the existing water was undrinkable.

Jantz said while there is contaminated water on the site, the company's own data showed that there were portions that were drinkable. "Once the uranium mining begins, that water is going to be destroyed," he said.

Robert Moran, a hydro-geologist and geo-chemist, believes that Powertech's proposed site hosts better water than the company has presented in its reports to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Moran has examined the company's permitting material on behalf of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, which sits 20 miles from the site and is staunchly opposed to its operation.

Powertech says that its data shows the groundwater in the proposed site is unusable. As one metric, the company points to radon levels that range up to 1,540 times the Environmental Protection Agency's standard for drinking water.

But in detailed testimony to NRC, Moran said while the area has been contaminated by open-pit mining and past exploration of uranium in the 1950s, there are still surface and ground areas that are uncontaminated or relatively uncontaminated.

"Experience at similar sedimentary uranium sites indicates that significant quantities of uncontaminated ground water likely exist, and could be used for other livestock, agricultural, domestic, etc., uses," he wrote.

He charged that NRC had failed to make Powertech provide "statistically adequate, reliable, pre-operational baseline data" on the site's groundwater.

Powertech defended that all the groundwater information it has supplied to regulators is in step with requirements by the NRC.

"The NRC license application was accepted for detailed technical review by NRC, signifying that it met the acceptance criteria for this site characterization monitoring," the company wrote in a statement.

Asked to comment on federal findings that water can not be restored to pre-mine quality, Powertech officials said the company is committed to restoring groundwater within rules set by the NRC.

The company also reiterated that within its proposed mining area, there are no drinking water wells and that the water exceeds South Dakota health standards.

Can it migrate?

Opponents of Powertech's proposal maintain that all prior evidence from in situ mines suggests that concentrations of chemicals like uranium in water will escalate.

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Their biggest fear is not simply that those contaminants will remain in the groundwater after mining has finished, but where they will flow after that.

For mining companies and industry regulators, that concern is easily dismissed.

The NRC said in a statement that based on its historical licensing information there is no evidence that domestic wells, livestock wells, or nearby groundwater sources have been impacted by an in situ mine.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said in a statement that there is no evidence that water supplies had been contaminated outside of an in situ mine's permitted boundaries.

"Texas regulations that apply to in situ mining of uranium are designed to protect underground sources of drinking water from contamination from such mining," spokesman Terry Clawson wrote.

But environmental watchdogs contend that those conclusions are based on a lack of data.

Geoff Fettus, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that another of the flaws in federal in situ regulation is a lack of long-term monitoring.

If the companies and regulators don't continue extensive sampling at a decommissioned site, he and other environmental activists argue, no one else can.

"We don't have the resources as a federal agency does to go mine by mine and see the spread of contaminants – if any," he said.

And while state and federal regulators contend otherwise, there is evidence at least one well in the country may have been contaminated due to its proximity to an in situ mine.

George Rice, a private hydrologist based in San Antonio, Texas, has found escalated concentrations of uranium at a livestock well about 1,000 feet away from the Kingsville Dome mine in Texas. The mine began production in 1988 but is currently inactive.

Rice said that while the uranium concentrations at the livestock well he analysed have always been unsafe for humans, the concentrations have tripled since the mine began operating in the area.

Now, Rice said, the well water is unsafe for livestock too.

Rice has submitted his findings to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and the operator of the Kingsville Dome mine, Uranium Resources, for review.

"This is the first case that I'm aware of that contaminants from an in situ mine have moved from a property and affected a domestic well," he said.

Asked for comment on Rice's findings, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said it was aware of the uranium concentration at that well, but disagreed with Rice's conclusion.

In a statement, the department said the groundwater is naturally high in uranium and that, based on an analysis by Uranium Resources, the concentrations only appear elevated because of changes to sampling procedures.

But Rice said the state's argument doesn't explain the higher concentrations of uranium. He said he had already explained in his report to the state that changes in sampling procedures couldn't adequately explain such a drastic increase in uranium levels.

"It's an easy bureaucratic response that doesn't cause any trouble," he said. "So they are not rocking any boats by simply repeating what the mine says."

Rich Abitz, the Cincinnati geo-chemist who has studied in situ mines, has looked at Rice's work and believes his conclusion is sound. He also believes that similar findings would be discovered at other in situ mines if extensive sampling was done.

However, Abitz cautioned, that doesn't mean that contaminants like uranium will spread hundreds of miles with groundwater flows.

He said chemicals like uranium are mobilized because they've been oxygenated by the in situ process. When they reach an area without oxygen, they will eventually become immobile. In addition, the contaminants will disperse as they travel.

That means that the uranium from the Kingsville Dome mine will likely only travel a few miles with the natural flow of the groundwater. And, because groundwater tends to move slowly, it will take decades for the contaminants to travel that distance. It is unlikely, he said, that contaminants will reach the town of Kingsville, population 26,000, about 10 miles away.

However, Abitz said that anyone living in the immediate groundwater path of the Kingsville Dome mine, or any other in situ mine, should be concerned about the impact to their well water. In dry states like Texas where water is scarce, that is no small issue. "The thing is," he said, "you have destroyed a large volume of water."

A project in motion

For Lilias Jarding, an organizer with the Clean Water Alliance, that risk of groundwater contamination isn't worth taking.

Although Powertech's proposed site is in a rural area of ranch land, and migration of contaminants might potentially reach only a few miles outside of the site, she said that could still make dozens of wells unusable for generations.

Jarding pointed to one of the company's permit applications, which showed 43 livestock wells and 18 domestic wells in a 1.2-mile radius of the site.

But Jarding believes the stakes at this week's permit hearing, where she will be testifying, are bigger than that. If the project is approved, Jarding believes it will open the floodgates for other mining companies interested in uranium deposits in the Black Hills and east of the Missouri River.

"It's potentially an issue for the whole state in terms of control of our water," she said.

Hollenbeck maintains that those concerns are groundless. He said there is still no confirmed evidence that contaminants have spread from an in situ uranium site into neighboring water supplies. He also reiterated that opponents are overstating the quality of the groundwater in the immediate site.

"This pristine water?" Hollenbeck said. "This is not pristine. This is lousy quality water."

As Powertech's representatives sit down in the same room as opponents this week for permit hearings, Hollenbeck said he's confident that the company will cut through the spin.

"When we go to hearings and use facts and science," he said. "You are going to find out most of what they are saying is not true."

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