Could Powertech restore mine water?

RAPID CITY — What kind of water will be pumped back into the ground if a proposed uranium mining project near Edgemont moves forward was up for debate Thursday during the first week of Powertech’s permit hearings before the state’s Water Management Board.

Powertech vice president of engineering John Mays sat on the witness stand all of Thursday to testify about the state’s first contested uranium mining operation proposed for land on Fall Fiver and Custer Counties.

Injection wells at the site, which would cost an estimated $51 million to construct, would be 200 to 800 feet deep. Powertech officials have been given a preliminary green light for the project from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the form of draft permits, but opponents said the company still has a lot of work to do – including explaining how it will ensure that the Inyan Kara and Madison aquifers will not be contaminated.

During cross-examination, Clean Water Alliance attorney Bruce Ellison and Mays split hairs on the exact plan for the water after the project.

“Would you be willing to make a commitment to this board that you will guarantee that you will restore the water to its current level?” Ellison said.

Mays said the company, by NRC standards, is required to return the water levels to a point that demonstrates there is no harm or potential harm to humans or the environment.

“It’s better to prove that it’s safe than that it’s at the baseline,” Mays said.

Ellison, who has asserted that the company cannot return the water to its current quality and quantity continued to ask Mays if the company would “commit” to returning the water to its current status. Ellison said the Water Management Board changed the state’s rules in 2008 that now allows a company to apply for a permit without proof that it can completely restore the water.

“It’s a goal,” Mays said. “We will make every possible effort to return it to baseline.”

“So, it’s a goal — it’s not a commitment to return water levels to baseline,” Ellison said.

Also on Thursday, Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary attorney Mike Hickey led Mays through the company’s financial status and corporate structure, pointing out that only one of the board members — CEO and President Richard Clement — is a U.S. citizen.

Opponents to the project have characterized the company as having no financial stability to do a mining operation and have said it is increasingly owned by foreign investors. Under a recent acquisition, Azarga Resources Limited, based out of Hong Kong, now owns more than 22 percent of the company’s shares.

On the stand, Mays said he has little knowledge of the corporate dealings of the company and when pressed by Hickey, referred questions to other company officers, including Clement who sat in the audience.

“Who are the shareholders holding 10 percent or more of the company?” Hickey asked.

“That is not something I really know about,” Mays responded.

“Who does?” Hickey asked.

“Dick Clement?”

“He’s not listed as a witness, is he?” Hickey asked.

“No,” Mays said.

Clement, whose office is in Albuquerque, N.M., has said the company is financially stable and will pursue debt-financing based on the value of a feasibility study when the permit is issued, which he said is the normal order activities of a project of this size.

Mays was also questioned Thursday about violations recently reported at a mining operation he worked at a decade ago in Wyoming. Ellison pointed out that the state’s Department of Quality issued a report on the Smith Ranch-Highland operations outlining violations including contamination of water drinking sources and leaks beyond the monitoring zones.

A report of the same project showed that arsenic levels had increased and that selenium and uranium were both seventy times higher at the end of restoration, Ellison pointed out.

Mays disagreed and said the project was not completely restored by that point. In an earlier interview this week, he said the public has no reason to worry about contamination and reiterated that on the stand.

“There’s reason for us to assume excellent confinement for the entire site,” he said.

Mays is expected to be on the stand at the hearings again today, which will conclude at noon and resume Dec. 9.

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