Security concerns addressed

RAPID CITY — When Donald Ackerman thinks about the proposed uranium mine near Edgemont, one worry persists in the back of his mind — security.

Ackerman, a Hot Springs resident and former military member, urged the Water Management Board this week to deny the proposed Dewey-Burdock mining application.

“Nothing in your reports shows any kind of security whatsoever,” Ackerman said to Powertech officials, testifying that the yellowcake produced during the mining process is a major security risk for the Black Hills and the country.

“With a bomb, wind, there’s nothing in your report containing how you’re going to secure the area against terrorists,” he said. “ … (Terrorists) don’t care if they live or die. All they want to do is get in there and make it go boom.”

But Vice President of Engineering John Mays said the proposed in situ mining operation – which would operate by pumping the water underground to absorb uranium before being pumped back to the surface for mineral recovery – is completely safe.

“The NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) evaluated our security plan and said it was OK,” Mays said during a break Tuesday.

The proposed project would extract an estimated one million pounds of uranium a year for eight years on an almost 11,000 acre piece of land that straddles Fall River and Custer Counties. Mays said several levels of security have been included in the proposal, including around the clock personnel, fencing, key card access and video surveillance.

“They’re not armed guards, but there will be staff there 24/7,” he said.

Mays, who is expected to be called as the Powertech’s first witness today, most recently served as the chief in-situ mining engineer for UrAsia Energy Ltd. at UrAsia’s three ISR projects in Kazakhstan, located in central Asia, before his position at Powertech.

“I’ve worked at these operations for most of my life and stealing yellowcake is not a concern,” he said.

Mays said the barrage of allegations from opponents to the project – including concerns that radioactive materials from the project could harm livestock, wildlife and people – have been unfair and unfounded.

“There has never been a case, ever, where groundwater contamination has occurred,” he said.

Opponents vehemently dispute that, citing studies that say there has never been a uranium mining operation that has been completely cleaned up afterward.

“There have been leaks and spills,” Mays said. “And those are not acceptable. Public perception is affected by those things.”

Leaks and spills are remediated and learned from, he said.

“I’ve never seen anything harmful,” he said. “It’s completely safe. I understand their concerns. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to my water.”

Opponents to the project testified Tuesday that the project would deter tourists, harm wildlife, fish and livestock, and is giving away a precious natural resource – for free.

Jim Petersen testified that he has worked on water issue projects all over the world and has seen firsthand the importance of the resource.

“The water is absolutely pivotal to the continued economic growth of South Dakota,” he said. “To allot a huge amount of it to this company is obscene … You are talking about giving water rights up for 20 years …  To me, that is criminal.”

Tuesday’s hearing included several tense exchanges between attorneys, members of the public and state water board chairman Rodney Freeman, who spent much of the day ruling on what documents or testimony was admissible in the public record.

At one point, rancher Susan Henderson left the podium in frustration after her line of questioning was objected to multiple times by Powertech attorney Max Main.

Board member Everett Hoyt asked the attorneys to remember that the first couple days of the week-long hearing should be more flexible because the members of the public are not well-versed in civil procedure.

“This is a time where the public participates,” he said. “I don’t want to see this become overly lawyery at this stage of the proceedings.”

Main said his approach at this hearing has been different than that at the Board of Minerals and Environment, where many of the same members of the public testified.

“I held off on objections a lot, and a lot of evidence came in (that) was perceived as quality evidence and expert evidence and it wasn’t,” he said, of the earlier hearings. “I’m trying to keep it under control some. I understand and I have full faith in the board you can separate the wheat from the chafe.”

The meetings will continue through Friday at the Best Western Ramkota in Rapid City. They begin at 8:30 a.m. and are open to the public. 

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