Judges put Powertech Uranium's mining license on hold

ROCKVILLE, Md. — Judges on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board put Powertech Uranium’s southern Black Hills mining project on hold Wednesday, issuing a temporary stay on the company’s operating license for the proposed Dewey-Burdock in situ recovery uranium mine.    

The order temporarily suspends Powertech’s operating license until the Canada-based, Hong Kong-funded uranium mining company, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and several groups of intervenors opposed to the project meet for a “brief oral argument” on the merits of the NRC’s licensing process.

The NRC granted Powertech a license for Dewey-Burdock on April 8, four months in advance of a public hearing the regulatory group scheduled to hear arguments against the project, leading many to view the NRC as little more than an industry lapdog.

Wednesday’s order of temporary stay stems from motion requests filed in mid-April by the Oglala Sioux Tribe and a consolidated group of several project intervenors.

The Consolidated Intervenors say the NRC’s licensing of the Dewey-Burdock project was “premature and defective” because it was issued in advance of the scheduled public hearing in August, thus violating the due process of intervenors. The tribe argued that the NRC and Powertech did not complete a “competent cultural resources inventory or survey of the (Dewey-Burdock) site” before the license was issued, as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), and have yet to produce a plan to mitigate potential damage to sites of cultural or historic significance. Powertech and the NRC contest these arguments.

“This temporary stay is intended to prevent any immediate and irreparable harm to any cultural or historic resources caused by earthwork or ground disturbance within the Dewey-Burdock sites,” Wednesday’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) order reads, specifically referencing the tribe’s motion. “Depending on the board’s ruling on Intervenors’ stay motions, this temporary stay will either be lifted or continue in effect pending completion of the evidentiary hearing on the admitted contentions associated with Powertech’s license application.”

Powertech officials said they believe the oral arguments meeting to review this stay order will take place sometime next week. The ASLB has not yet released any scheduling information.

Powertech CEO Richard Clement is confident the opposition’s arguments will not pose a setback for the Dewey-Burdock project.

“It’s obvious from the work that was done down there that there is no potential for harm, so I am not concerned at all,” he said.

Dewey-Burdock Project Manager Mark Hollenbeck said the intervenor’s contentions have no merit, which will be proven in the oral argument meeting.

“They have attempted several things, but in reality, the only thing they have going for them is death by delay,” he said. “… We are very confident in the science we used to put the license together. The NRC is obviously very confident in it or they wouldn’t have issued the license. We do not believe any of the contentions will be upheld.”

Hollenbeck added that the temporary stay order is fairly common practice and isn’t much in the way of a setback.

While it is common practice for the ASLB to schedule oral argument meetings between license applicants, the NRC, and intervenors to discuss contested matters, ordering a stay on an active NRC materials license before the onset of operation is rare. In fact, it appears that this has only happened once before in the 36-year history of ASLB. And the similarities between these two cases are striking.

On Jan. 5, 1998, the NRC issued Hydro Resources Inc. a materials license for its proposed Crown Point and Church Rock in situ recovery uranium mining projects in New Mexico. Two weeks later the ASLB ordered a temporary stay on the license until the board held an evidentiary hearing on the project and the NRC completed the historic and cultural site reviews required under the NEPA and NHPA acts. This was in response to stay requests by a Navajo uranium mining opposition group, Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) and an environmental group, the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC). Current Powertech President and CEO Richard Clement served as president of Hydro Resources at the time (1996-1999).

More than a year later, on Aug. 20, 1999, the ASLB removed the stay and upheld Hydro Resources’ license. But this was not the end of the company’s troubles.

The NRC put Hydro Resources’ license back on hold in May of 2000, again at the request of ENDAUM and SRIC, along with a few additional intervenors. The Crown Point and Church Rock projects are currently still under review by the NRC and EPA, some 26 years after Hydro Resources initially applied for an NRC license to mine uranium in New Mexico through in situ recovery.

Regardless of the outcome of the pending ASLB meeting for oral arguments between Powertech, the NRC, and intervenors, the Dewey-Burdock project needs approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the South Dakota Board of Minerals and Environment, and the South Dakota Water Management Board before Powertech may begin operation.

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