EDGEMONT | The two officials from the EPA sat across from each other at a table in the Edgemont City Hall, and they waited.
They needed permission from local landowners, mostly ranchers, to go on their land to test waterways for pollution from abandoned uranium mines. A June open house was scheduled for the landowners, and for a while it looked like nobody would show up.
But then, in walked — nay, stomped — Don Anderson, his attire like a second skin: scuffed boots, a Western shirt stretched over his midsection and an angular cowboy hat atop his head. A bristly horseshoe mustache protruded from his face and a scowl tightened his jaw.
“I don’t want the government on my place,” he said. “I don’t trust the government.”
The EPA people absorbed the blow. They knew it was coming. They’d seen the likes of Anderson before and were prepared to win him over.
Gradually he melted under their assurances. They would only come once, they said, and would let him watch the work. He affixed his signature to their release form, and even became helpful, telling them the best way to access parts of his land.
In September, as the grass dried up on the plains at the southwestern edge of the Black Hills, an EPA contractor was on Anderson’s property testing a creek. Eleven other sites were also tested, involving seven landowners in all.
“They were gonna get on my land anyhow,” Anderson told a reporter after the June meeting. “It’s either this, or fight them in court, and you know how that would end up. I’d just as soon do it this way, with me watching them every step.”
The EPA wants to determine if a cleanup of the abandoned mines is needed to protect creeks and a river from potentially cancer-causing radioactive material left behind by uranium mining that ended in the 1970s. The ranchers are nervous that a cleanup will clean out their pockets, instead of forcing payment by the long-gone corporate barons who did the environmental damage.
The EPA is awaiting results from the testing and will only take action if pollutant levels downstream from the mines are at least three times higher than the “background,” or baseline levels measured upstream. The two big targets of the study — the Darrow and Triangle mines, which both include water-filled pits — were not tested because the owners of the sites did not grant access. Instead, samples were collected from the nearby Cheyenne River, Pass Creek and Beaver Creek.
The testing was deemed necessary after a 2014 preliminary assessment that was requested by the nonprofit Institute of Range and the American Mustang, owner of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. The preliminary assessment found radioactive forms of elements, known as radionuclides, in surface soil, air, streams and domestic wells near the mines.
A lake in a mine
Donald Spencer, a weathered and wiry 79-year-old rancher, owns the land that includes the old Triangle Mine site. He worked in the mine as a young man, but it was operated by companies who had the mineral rights. Spencer and his relatives watched it all with bemused curiosity and kept on ranching.
In later years, Spencer acquired the land from his grandfather. He keeps the old mine fenced off and runs cattle around it.
The drive to the Triangle Mine is one best undertaken by a massive pickup like the one Spencer owns. One day in June, he bounced the truck over rocks and steered it around muddy ruts as he traversed the dirt track through a pasture of patchy grass, sage and sandstone rubble.
The track leads past the remains of a homestead cabin built with massive, interlocking, squared logs that are dried and bleached by the sun. Spencer’s grandfather homesteaded the area in “19-4,” his way of referring to 1904. That grandfather, according to Spencer, walked five miles to a railroad job each day and then came home to milk the cows at night. It was a hard life that was made a little easier with royalties from the uranium mines on his land.
At the mine site, a giant pile of waste rock is mounded into a kind of man-made badlands formation, dusty and tan and exposed to the harsh elements on the windblown plain. Over an adjacent mound and down in a depression, there it is: the remains of the Triangle Mine, a 400-yard long and 150-yard wide pit full of water that is about the size of 11 football fields.
It would be a nice little lake if it wasn’t 90 feet deep and possibly tainted by the radioactive remains of uranium ore.
A deep, dark pool
One day not so many years ago, Spencer got a call from a pair of Rapid City men who wanted to go scuba diving in the pit. The request was the fulfillment of an odd prophecy that appeared in the Edgemont Herald-Tribune newspaper in 1961.
That year, journalist Charles E. Donnelly Jr. wrote in a column that the rights to the Triangle Mine had recently been acquired by the Mines Development company. That was perhaps an error, as it was more likely that the rights belonged to Susquehanna-Western. But the distinction meant little since both were subsidiaries of Susquehanna Corp., a giant holding company then headquartered in Chicago.
Donnelly had recently toured the pit and was awestruck by the “great man-made chasm,” which he described as “beautiful yet somewhat frightening and disquieting to enter.”
Workers were dynamiting and scraping up 500 tons of ore per day in the massive pit. Giant machines crept into the mine on a dirt road that slanted straight down into it. Trucks were loaded for back-and-forth trips to the mill in nearby Edgemont.
Keeping groundwater out of the mine was a constant challenge. When the mine’s corporate owners were finished with it, a foreman told Donnelly, they planned to simply let it fill, “creating a tremendous body of water.”
“It will be deep enough for good fishing,” Donnelly quoted the foreman as saying, and “boy what a place for scuba diving it will be.”
Years later, the divers from Rapid City called Spencer and fulfilled the prophecy.
“They got about 15-20 feet down,” Spencer recalled, “and it was darker than the inside of a black cat.”
They left quickly and never came back. This past June, Dania Zinner, an Environmental Protection Agency employee who visited Edgemont, heard the scuba-diving tale from the Journal.
Her eyes grew wide at the telling.
“I’m not sure I’d want to go diving in that water,” she said.
Somebody else’s mess
The giant scars on the land are not the only vestige of the long-ago mining operations. Spencer said the flow of private water wells in the area diminished as mining prospectors drilled hundreds of deep holes in the earth, looking for uranium deposits.
To this day, while Spencer is out riding his pastures on horseback, he keeps a wary eye out for 4-inch-diameter holes that might trip and injure his horse.
“I knew all them guys that were diggin’ them holes, and I know how they were pluggin’ ’em,” Spencer said. “Let’s just say I probably better not talk about that.”
Yet Spencer is cold to the federal EPA, whose employees say they want to help him clean up the old mine if necessary. When they showed up in June to meet with Spencer and other landowners in Edgemont to seek access to their land for environmental testing, Spencer strolled into Edgemont City Hall and sat down as the EPA representatives talked to someone else. After sitting silently and listening for a few moments, he whispered something about “B.S.” and needing lunch, and then walked out.
Spencer’s suspicion of outsiders and bureaucrats is borne of hard-fought experience. He watched uranium men swoop in with big promises in the 1950s and then flee in the 1970s with most of the profits and none of the responsibility for the abandoned mines, drill holes or the defunct Edgemont mill and its 4 million tons of radioactive waste tailings.
Spencer has also butted heads with the U.S. Forest Service, which owns land next to his and has been a consistent source of aggravation, he said, because of runaway controlled burns, wildfires, downed trees on his pasture fences and other everyday troubles.
The bureaucrats and the corporate-mining types who’ve come and gone through the decades have viewed Spencer and his ilk as “pretty backwoodsy,” he said.
But in refusing to deal with the EPA on his mine site, he may be wise. If the testing shows a need for a cleanup to protect area waterways, said the EPA’s Victor Ketellapper, the other agency representative who made the June trek to Edgemont, a landowner could be one of the “potentially liable parties.”
Ketellapper stressed that the EPA prefers to find the companies that caused the environmental damage and then assess the cleanup cost to them; failing that, the agency tries to make accommodations for landowners who lack an ability to pay.
When Spencer looks around, he doesn’t see any companies that the EPA could hold liable. Susquehanna Corp., the giant holding company that controlled much of the mining and milling in the Edgemont area via two subsidiaries, was legally dissolved decades ago.
That leaves Spencer alone and potentially exposed and stubbornly against further intrusions.
“We met with ’em last fall,” he said of an earlier EPA visit. “I more or less told ’em we didn’t want ’em around here.”
Coming tomorrow on Page A1, Part 5 and final: “The past as prologue,” on whether the lessons of Edgemont’s open-pit uranium boom will be applied to a proposed new round of uranium mining.
Contact Seth Tupper at firstname.lastname@example.org
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