On Valentine’s Day, the Pennington County Commission voted on a shovel-ready ordinance that can only be described as a sweetheart deal for the mining industry and commissioners who’d rather not rule on projects in the Black Hills where passions run deep.
The proposed ordinance was put together by an eight-member committee that included three county government representatives, two industry representatives from the same company, and two with ties to South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, including the so-called citizens’ representative.
A large crowd packed commission chambers on Wednesday to weigh in on a proposal that many felt had little regard for the public’s right to be informed and heard on projects that could have substantial impacts on the Black Hills and those who live, work, play and enjoy one of the most beautiful areas in the nation.
They have good reasons to be concerned. The proposed ordinance insulates county commissioners from making decisions, severely limits those who can appeal a decision and makes permit renewals an administrative function with the power granted to the county’s planning director, an advisor to the committee that drafted the proposal.
As it is currently written, the ordinance basically denies the public a role in the process while paving the way for mining and gravel companies to get their permits.
Instead of requiring Pennington County commissioners to decide on issuing mining permits — which are all controversial in today's environment — the proposal delegates the task to the Planning Commission, an unelected body whose members are appointed by county commissioners and are not well-known to the general public.
To further protect the elected officials and disenfranchise the public, only those who live within 500 feet of a proposed mining project can appeal the Planning Commission's decision to the County Commission.
How many people live within 500 feet of a mining project in the Black Hills? It is conceivable those neighbors could be the state of South Dakota, which would never appeal, the National Forest Service, which won't appeal as long as Donald Trump is president, and perhaps a private landowner or two. Also, how was it determined that only those who live within 500 feet of a project have legitimate concerns about potential detrimental effects of a project?
Mining projects can pollute the water supply and damage the environment in other ways that can hurt the livelihood of those in the tourism industry, which is the backbone of this area's economy and what sets this area apart from the rest of South Dakota. Why can only those who own property that is less two football fields away from a project appeal the decision of an unelected body?
And, finally, the renewal of permits would be reduced to an administrative task, meaning the public likely would never be informed of that process.
Where does this ordinance leave the public? Excluded — even though arguably everyone has a stake in the future of the Black Hills, the ultimate gold mine for this area.
It's also interesting but likely not coincidental that the proposal did not see the light of the day until the eve of a Feb. 27 deadline — set as the result of the expiration date of a moratorium on mining permits approved two years ago.
After hours of testimony Wednesday, the commission voted 2-2 on the ordinance. Commissioners Lloyd LaCroix and Deb Hadcock, also a member of the committee that drafted the proposal, voted to delegate their duties to others. Commissioners George Ferebee and Mark DiSanto opposed it. Commissioner Ron Buskerud, who once again attended the meeting via video conference from his second home in Arizona, was unable to vote due to technical difficulties with his internet service.
The commission now has precious few days to approve a new ordinance, which needs to be rewritten. Commissioners who can be held accountable by voters should make the decisions. More than a handful of parties should be able to appeal a decision. The permit-renewal process needs to be more rigorous and subject to public scrutiny.
The Black Hills are a treasured public resource. How it is developed shouldn't be decided by appointees no one knows or in an office in the Pennington County Administrative Building. It needs to be a public process. It's what we expect in a democracy.