Fight over water begins again

Four days of public hearings regarding the controversial proposed Powertech in situ uranium mine near Edgemont have begun. Powertech officials say the science behind the mining process ensures safety, while opponents said the risk of contaminating the water is too great. Pioneer photo by Kayla Gahagan

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RAPID CITY — Gena Parkhurst testified before a regional Environmental Agency Protection judge Monday that it was contaminated water Parkhurt’s mother drank in North Carolina that caused Gena’s birth defects and one of the reasons the federal agency should pull the plug on a proposed uranium mining operation near Edgemont, S.D.

“If we don’t protect unborn babies, who will,” said Parkhurst, whose plea before deputy regional counsel Elyana Sutin-McCeney was just one of dozens heard during the first of four days of public hearing on two EPA permits for a proposed in situ uranium mining project near Edgemont.

Almost 100 people, many holding anti-project signs, met for the first of two days of hearings in Rapid City. A hearing will also be held Wednesday in Hot Springs and in Edgemont on Thursday. Public comment can be submitted to the EPA until May 19.

The EPA issued two draft permits in March to Powertech — a U.S. division of the global Azarga Uranium Corp. One of the EPA permits would allow Powertech to drill thousands of wells within 14 designated well fields. The production wells would go hundreds of feet underground into the Inyan Kara formation of aquifers.

The second permit would allow the company to drill four disposal wells in the Minnelusa formation.

Concerns over water rights, health and protection have long been the rallying cry of opponents of the project and continued to dominate the testimony Monday. In situ mining involves pumping the water underground where it absorbs the uranium, and is then pumped back to the surface where the minerals can be recovered. Critics of the project say the mining solution and the injected waste fluid could migrate and contaminate other underground water sources.

Local rancher Marvin Kammerer sternly told the EPA representatives they would have a fight on their hands if they allow the permits to go through.

“Don’t ever steal our water or the use of our water to a foreign company,” he said. “It’s a tremendous amount of water. It’s 9,000 gallons of water a minute, for 20 years for potentially 24 hours a day. We live in a drought-stricken area. The Inyan Kara is a blessed gift as is every one of these bodies of water.”

Kammerer challenged the idea that there would be no contamination.

“Can I have them bring you a gallon of that water and have you drink it while you’re sitting here at this meeting?” he said. “ … We’re not leaving and you’re not going to poison our water.”

Mark Hollenbeck, an Edgemont rancher and project director attended the meeting and said he had no plan to speak. Powertech will submit written testimony to the EPA. It’s been more than a decade since the company acquired its Edgemont-area mining rights and opponents continue to rely on feelings, he said.

“There’s lots of emotion and opinion and very little fact,” he said. “This is part of the process, and we expect our science to hold up again.”

Final approval from the EPA would still not be enough for Powertech to begin drilling. The company must still seek additional permits, including those from the state.

But an operations approval from the Bureau of Land Management, an approved license from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the recently-approved EPA draft permits, mean things are moving in the right direction, Hollenbeck said.

“This was a significant milestone,” he said. “It’s extremely slow, but it is moving. It’s unbelievable it takes ten years to get a permit.”

But Clean Water Alliance member Lilias Jarding, said it’s going at just the right speed.

“A uranium project would be permanent,” she said. “It would never go away, so we need to take a good, hard look at this company.”

Jarding, who has been outspoken against the project for years, said she is encouraged by the hearings.

“I think it’s going to be stopped,” she said.

Cheryl Angel was one of several tribal members who protested the permits. Angel grew up in the Black Hills and now lives on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.

“I’m a water protector,” she said. “What worries me is that the elected officials don’t understand that the aquifers were placed in a protected area by divine design. They were designed to provide water for thousands of years.”

Powertech’s insistence that they would mitigate any problems and would clean up the area and water when they are finished simply isn’t true, she said.

“It’s lies, blatant lies,” she said. “They can’t guarantee anything 100 percent.”

In an unusual move by the EPA, staff were on hand Monday to answer questions for an hour before the hearing started. Valois Shea, an environmental scientist from the EPA’s underground injection control unit, stood by fold out maps and met with hearing participants.

Shea said the technology of mining has improved over the years and there are now strict reclamation requirements placed on companies.

“There are so many misconceptions,” she said.

She said that the opponents are correct that nothing is 100 percent.

“The best permit in the world isn’t a guarantee that nothing will happen,” she said. “But there will be extra monitoring and remediation so if anything did happen, we would catch it early and fix it.”

Shea said the EPA could change the draft permits after hearing from the public.

“There’s no timeline,” she said, adding that the EPA is still in the middle of tribal consultations. “There are no final permit decisions until the tribal consultation process is complete.”

If you go

Public hearings continue:

Today 1-8 p.m. (with a break from 5-6 p.m.)

The Best Western Ramkota Hotel, 2111 N. LaCrosse St., Rapid City

Wednesday, from 1-8 p.m. (with a break from 5-6 p.m.)

The Mueller Center, 801 S 6th St., Hot Springs

Thursday, from 1-8 p.m. (with a break from 5-6 p.m.)

St. James Catholic Church, 310 3rd Ave., Edgemont

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