1st week of mine application hearings comes to an end

RAPID CITY — In last-hour attempts by attorneys from both sides, the Board of Minerals and Environment was led Friday through dozens of water, restoration, land and mining studies and projects they hoped highlighted either the virtues or dangers of in situ uranium mining.

With Powertech USA hydrologist Hal Demuth on the stand, the company spent most of the day trying to demonstrate that they have quality control measures in place for waste disposal for the proposed Dewey-Burdock project that will not result in the loss or reduction of long-term water production of local aquifers.

Clean Water Alliance attorney Bruce Ellison and Wild Horse Sanctuary attorney Mike Hickey — both opposed to the project — questioned Demuth’s involvement in other in situ mining projects that reported contamination.

“The well fields are all interconnected by pipes and then joined by pipes underground, and if there’s a leak, unless it’s on the surface, it could take a while to see — correct?” Ellison asked during his cross-examination of Demuth.

Demuth, who said there are plenty of examples of projects across the country that have not had problems, told Ellison that Powertech would complete mechanical integrity tests on all pipelines and closely monitor every well.

Powertech’s proposed large-scale mine, which would be located some 15 miles northwest of Edgemont, has met strong opposition since the Canadian-based company acquired interest in the Black Hills in 2005 and drilled more than 100 holes to explore for uranium.

The proposed mine would extract an estimated one million pounds of uranium a year for nine years on an almost 11,000 acre piece of land that straddles Fall River and Custer Counties.

Though much of the testimony this week included hundreds of assertions of fact from Powertech and its opponents, both sides say the issue hinges on much more than the details.

“This is the first foot in the door,” Ellison said. “Other companies are watching what will happen … This is about whether we, as a state, can rely on our limited water as a resource.”

But there’s a good reason to be in South Dakota, said Powertech president and CEO Richard Clement, who traveled to the hearings this week from New Mexico.

“It has the largest deposit of uranium available for in situ mining that is not owned by Cameco,” he said, during a break Friday.

Throughout the week, Clement has maintained his confidence that Powertech would receive the permit from the Board of Minerals and Environment. When asked if the company is financially relying on the project to continue its operations, Clement said it is the only project they currently have before regulatory boards.

“The way we look at this is that we will get the permits to move forward,” he said. “If we can’t get permits, we can’t achieve what this company has set out to do.”

Clement said Powertech will not backing down.

“We would resubmit our application,” he said, if the permit wasn’t issued this time around.

And on the other side, if Powertech was awarded the large-scale mining permit, the opponents would appeal the ruling to the state circuit court, Ellison said.

“We’re determined to fight this,” he added.

Demuth’s testimony is not over. He will take the stand again in November, when the board will meet for a second week of hearings.

At the close of Friday, Board of Minerls and Environment hearing chair Rexford Hagg reminded attorneys and interveners (members of the public who agreed to testify under oath and be cross-examined) to have their legal briefs in for the hearing by Nov. 4.

“We have at least four jurisdictional bodies and state and local laws with the process,” Hagg said, referring to the ongoing issue of who has jurisdiction over the project.

At one point Friday, Ellison renewed a motion from earlier in the week to strike all documents from any of the other three entities who might have jurisdiction in the project, including the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Powertech attorney Max Main has said the company is not required to obtain the permits in a certain order. Hagg called on all parties to put their arguments in writing.

“I want it sorted out,” Hagg said. “I think that’s part of what the board has to consider.”

Intervener Jerri Baker, of Hot Springs, said this week has been overwhelming, not only because of the large amount of complicated material to digest but because of a general unfamiliarity with civil procedure during the hearings.

Interveners were given latitude during their time at the podium, but had to be reminded several times to ask questions, present evidence, and give openings statements as if they were attorneys.

“It took me 10 months to come up with what I did,” Baker said, of the material she presented to the board. “Now I have to try to come up with a brief to explain how what I’m saying matches the laws according to state and federal regulations — am I hearing this right?”

Hagg said the briefs are not required, but would be considered by board members when making a decision.

“You know I want to put one in if Powertech is,” she said. “This is my water we’re talking about.”

The Board of Minerals and Environment will hold the second part of Powertech’s large-scale mining permit hearing beginning at 10 a.m., Nov. 11 at the Rapid City Best Western Ramkota hotel.

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