Uranium mining is re-emerging in South Dakota’s Black Hills, threatening our already taxed water supply – The South Dakota Standard
The rambling rail town of Edgemont in the southwest corner of South Dakota just outside the Black Hills has been known for decades for its nearby uranium deposits.
In the 1950s and 1960s, uranium from the Edgemont area helped fuel the nuclear reactors of the Tennessee Valley Authority. In 1979-80, as uranium prices skyrocketed around the world, there was renewed interest in uranium exploration and mining in the Southern Hills. However, after the 1979 nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, a strong anti-nuclear movement developed in South Dakota through the Black Hills Alliance, which brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists. (as pictured above in an image by Atlas of environmental justice) oppose what was considered an existential threat to the environment of the Sacred Black Hills.
As uranium prices fell and construction of new nuclear power plants did not progress, the threat subsided and Edgemont focused on other projects, including a nuclear waste dump project and a huge multi-land dump. -states, which did not materialize.
In recent years, there has been latent controversy over a proposed uranium mine in the Dewey-Burdock area northwest of Edgemont. Unlike uranium mines of the past, which left unsightly and contaminated surface mines behind, the plan by Powertech (a Canadian-owned company) contemplates an in-situ leaching operation, in which chemicals are injected into the water table to bring uranium to the surface. . Powertech plans to use up to 9,000 gallons of water per minute, tapping into aquifers already strained by drought. In contrast, Rapid City’s 80,000 residents only use about 6500 gallons of water per minute. Powertech is also seeking permission from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to dispose of hazardous wastes created by the in situ process, pumping them into the Madison or Deadwood formations.
Not surprisingly, the proposal met with stiff opposition from environmental groups, including Dakota Rural Action and the Clean Water Alliance, as well as the neighboring Oglala Sioux tribe. It goes further than that, as the mayor and city council of neighboring Hot Springs and the city council of Buffalo Gap also oppose a project that threatens the quality of drinking water in their communities.
Powertech has sought state and federal authorization to begin uranium mining at Dewey-Burdock for more than a decade. In 2013, Powertech requested a deferral of its requested state water licenses, pending approval of its license by the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and its request for exemptions and permits from the EPA. . In November 2020, days after the election, the EPA issued Powertech its final permit for injection wells, but that decision was immediately appealed to the Environmental Appeals Board.
The NRC’s request was approved seven years ago, but the Oglala Sioux tribe appealed the decision, and the DC Court of Appeal referred the case back to the NRC for further proceedings, where the alleged violations of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) need to be reviewed. . Since the in situ mine would also impact federal lands along the South Dakota-Wyoming border, Powertech must obtain approval from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) before it can move on. before. Under the Biden administration, the EPA postponed any further action on federal permits, pending the outcome of the pending federal court case.
After an eight-year hiatus, Powertech approached the South Dakota Water Management Board this year, seeking to revive its state licensing process. Interestingly, Ann Mines Bailey, an assistant attorney general who represents South Dakota’s water rights program and surface water quality program, opposed Powertech’s request. She pointed out that Powertech herself had put her application on hold “so that she could obtain the necessary federal permits … Powertech’s federal permits have still not been finalized.” New Powertech attorney Matthew Naasz of Rapid City expressed frustration that “Powertech is currently stuck in a 22 trap” and argued that “(the) federal government… should not be able to point to South Dakota to justify its lethargy. . “
The South Dakota Water Management Board has deferred its decision on Powertech’s renewed permit application until October. Since the file was examined eight years ago, the council has had new members, the engineer who assessed their request has retired and is no longer available, and several of the more than 300 citizens intervening against the project. have moved or have died, making it difficult to service them. (Full disclosure: I am one of the citizen interveners against the Powertech proposal.)
When Three Mile Island melted 42 years ago, followed by a massive spill of uranium-contaminated water in the Rio Puerco near the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, it became a popular refrain that the best answer to uranium deposits was to leave them in the ground. In a time of persistent drought and heightened environmental awareness, it remains to be seen whether the uranium lurking near the Black Hills water supply will be left in the ground or mined.
Jay Davis is a Rapid City attorney who writes regularly for The South Dakota Standard.