Proposed uranium mine in Southern Hills gets EPA approval

EDGEMONT — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued final Underground Injection Control (UIC) permits and a Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) aquifer exemption to Powertech (USA) Inc. for the Dewey-Burdock uranium in-situ recovery (ISR) site near Edgemont.

The permit was a major hurdle the company has had to overcome in its contentious, 12-year battle to gain permitting. Gaining the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval was the first major permitting obstacle and the company gained that OK in 2014.

Powertech officials said the Dewey-Burdock in situ uranium mining project would extract an estimated one million pounds of uranium a year for eight years from an almost 11,000-acre piece of land that straddles Fall River and Custer counties.

There are more permits that need to be gained before the company could begin mining.

“We still have a plan of operations that needs to be approved by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and then state permitting with the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (for more mining and water permits),” said Mark Hollenbeck, project manager of Powertech.

In a prepared statement by the EPA, the permits were grated following a lengthy process.

“These permits reflect many years of evaluation and public comment on Powertech’s applications to recover uranium from ore-bearing formations at the Dewey-Burdock project location,” said EPA Regional Administrator Gregory Sopkin. “EPA’s final actions are based on a thorough consideration of scientific, technical and regulatory aspects of the permits, and a review of all comments received, including those received during tribal consultation. This process has contributed to the development of requirements that will protect the region’s groundwater while enabling the safe recovery of valuable uranium resources.”

The EPA’s action includes two final permits issued to Powertech for injection activities related to uranium recovery. One is a UIC Class III Area Permit for injection wells for in situ uranium mining; the second is a UIC Class V Area Permit for deep injection wells that will be used to dispose of in situ process waste fluids into the Minnelusa Formation after being treated to meet radioactive waste and hazardous waste standards. The EPA is also finalizing an aquifer exemption approval in connection with the Class III Area Permit to allow for resource recovery in the uranium-bearing portions of the Inyan Kara Group of aquifers.

The EPA included protective measures in both permits which will authorize the safe operation of multiple injection wells within the project area. These include requirements for the treatment of Class V injection fluids to ensure injected fluids are not radioactive or hazardous waste, and extensive monitoring of the areas surrounding the Class III injection wellfields before, during, and after ISR operations to ensure all regulatory standards are met. Additional permit requirements include securing financial assurances and testing related to the proper operation, management and closure of injection wells, as well as extensive recordkeeping and reporting. These requirements will protect groundwater resources at the project site, including the Madison Formation, a prolific aquifer and a source for public drinking water systems.

Hollenbeck said when the state and BLM would hold hearings on the permits is unknown. But he said when the hearings do proceed, there will be a “clearer picture” on what yet needs to be scrutinized thanks to, “Thousands of pages of permits and supporting documents.”

In the middle of permitting was the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in which the nuclear power plant suffered a meltdown releasing radioactive contamination following an earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

Countries around the globe took their nuclear reactors off-line and questioned the safety of nuclear power.

The Pioneer asked Hollenbeck Wednesday if uranium remains a profitable and viable source of energy.

“It’s certainly viable,” Hollenbeck said. “As the United States attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they are going to find out in short order that you can’t do it without nuclear power. You would have the entire country littered with white windmills in an attempt to go carbon free. White windmills do not produce electricity when you need it. They produce electricity when the wind blows. We have to have to have good carbon-free generation and nuclear power is the way to go.

“There rest of the world is still building reactors. The United States is still building reactors,” he added.

Hollenbeck noted a new nuclear reactor has been commissioned along the Georgia/Tennessee border since Powertech proposed the mine, and two more reactors are under construction in Georgia.

“China is turning one on every couple months,” he said and added that Japan is turning its nuclear reactors back on as well.

New technology is also showing that small reactors, built in a factory rather than onsite, are showing promise.

“With the new smaller nuclear reactor where they can build a reactor in a warehouse and put it in place, that technology is a game changer,” he said. “It is such a huge capital investment that the reactors got bigger and bigger and bigger because of the permitting issues. When it takes you 12 years to permit, you can’t mess around on a little project. You have to do big projects to justify it.”

He said it takes around a dozen small, modular reactors to produce the equivalent about of energy as a large reactor.

He said in situ mining is still safe.

“To date there has never been a drinking water well contaminated by an in situ operation. With all the hysteria and chatter out there, ‘it’s not safe…’ someone’s well should have been contaminated by now if it is not safe. And that has not happened,” Hollenbeck said.

While conventional mining involves removing mineralised rock, called ore, from the ground, breaking it up, and treating it to remove the minerals sought, in situ leaching, or in situ recovery, involves leaving the ore where it is in the ground, and recovering the minerals from it by dissolving them and pumping the pregnant solution to the surface where the minerals can be recovered. Consequently there is little surface disturbance and no tailings or waste rock generated. In this case, oxygenized water is injected into the ore body and moved to recovery wells surrounding the injection site.

“It mimics the natural process in which uranium was deposited – which is water and oxygen. Once you remove the source of oxygen, the uranium precipitates out again,” Hollenbeck said.

Uranium moves naturally slowly - over millions of years.

“We can increase the rate of movement only for a very, very, short distance. We can get it to move 30-50 feet to a wellhead,” he said. “Even if you wanted it to leave the site you really can’t. Not without an infinite supply of oxygen. “

Hollenbeck said he is confident that the project will viewed favorably.

“Contrary to our detractors, we have stood the test of time,” he said. “We have done exactly what they said they wanted us to do which was take our time and make sure it is safe. I am sure they will now come up with another reason for us to not do it. But at some point, you have to have a source of energy. You want the safest possible source, and I believe we have it.”

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