Recently, I have heard two themes in the discussion of the potential for uranium mining in the southwestern Black Hills.
One is that some people believe that the mining has already received a go-ahead, which is far from true. The company that wants to mine in Custer and Fall River counties — Azarga/Powertech — must get at least ten permits of various types before it can begin mining. And to date, they have exactly one — and that one is tied up in court.
The second theme is that some people, mainly the company, think that the permitting process is too hard. But the number of permits needed is a result of three things.
First, it’s a result of our nation’s division into counties, states and a federal government. (Each level of government has different responsibilities under our Constitutional system of government.) Second, it is a result of the fact that uranium is both radioactive and toxic, so we need protection from its impacts. And third, the number of permits is a result of the nature of in-situ leach uranium mining, which has impacts on water, land and air.
This type of mining involves huge amounts of water — 9,000 gallons per minute — so it needs permits to use water. The proposed project would pump from two groundwater aquifers, the Inyan Kara and the Madison. The mine would tear up the surface of the ground, so it needs a mining permit. And it can pollute the air, so it needs an air quality permit.
Equally important, this type of mine needs to get rid of wastewater. In this case, the company’s first choice is to pump wastewater into the Minnelusa aquifer. Note that the Inyan Kara, Madison and Minnelusa aquifers are our three major drinking water sources in the Black Hills, so it’s important that some branch of government tracks the things that go into or out of them.
If the company can’t get permission to pump its wastes into our groundwater, then it wants to spray them on the ground. This would impact over 1,000 acres.
So, if the company wasn’t threatening our air, land and water to do something that is inherently dangerous, there wouldn’t be as much need for permits. Radioactivity is, after all, permanent. And there is no alternative to water. I say if you want to use and pollute our natural resources, there should be a process in place that is designed to protect public health, our economy and our environment.
This is especially urgent when we are dealing with a Canada-based, China-led uranium company whose biggest stockholder (seven of whose leaders are under federal charges for such things as fraud) is based in the Cayman Islands.
It is also especially urgent because the mining industry produces one-third of the nation’s total toxic pollution, and taxpayers end up holding the bag when companies go bankrupt — which happens regularly, as the history of the Black Hills shows.
Luckily, in one case, each of us has the opportunity to be part of the permit process — when the Environmental Protection Agency holds public comment hearings on May 8-9 at the Ramkota in Rapid City, May 10 at the Mueller Center in Hot Springs, and May 11 at St. James Church in Edgemont (1 to 8 p.m. each day, with a break from 5 to 6 p.m.). Anyone can have their say.
So if you have an opinion about the proposed uranium mine and waste disposal, bring it to the hearings, or just come to observe. We are, in this case, part of the permit process.
Lilias Jarding is a member of the Rapid City-based Clean Water Alliance.