Uranium mining debate heats up

RAPID CITY — The first day of a hotly contested public hearing about whether to allow Powertech (USA) Inc. to mine near Edgemont included back-to-back firsthand experiences with uranium mining — one a cautionary tale and the other a testimony of economic development and job creation.

The Board of Minerals and Environment Monday kicked off its first day of the public hearings about Powertech (USA) Inc.’s application for the Dewey-Burdock mine — a large-scale mine 15 miles northwest of Edgemont.

“I used to be a nuclear power advocate up until I worked on this site,” said Mike Bynum, who worked as a health physics monitor for the Riverton Wyoming UMTRA uranium mining project in the late 50s and early 60s. More than 900,000 tons of uranium was extracted and the company made millions of dollars, Bynum said.

But what was left for the community was one million cubic yards of mill tailings and 800,000 cubic yards of contaminated sub-soils, which he says took the state of Wyoming two and a half years to cleanup and millions of dollars.

It was the off-site trips Bynum took to homes, farms and private property where he tested for contamination that left the greatest impression on him.

“I went to a doctor’s house and took a reading in his basement,” Bynum said. “His son died of leukemia. You’ll never be able to connect it, but it makes you wonder. My whole thing is that it’s not fail-safe.”

But he wasn’t the only person who has had up-close and personal experiences with uranium mining — some of which have been positive. More than 250 people attended the almost four-hour public comment period. This includes Clarence Anderson, who said he had a big stake in the drinking water and health of the environment in the Black Hills as a long-time Edgemont resident with kids and grandkids in the area.

“I spent 30 years in uranium mining, and I’m concerned people aren’t looking at the science and technology available now,” he said, particularly in situ mining, which is Powertech’s proposed method of extraction. “I support this operation.”

In situ involves pumping oxygenated water underground where it absorbs uranium, and is then pumped back to the surface where the minerals can be recovered.

John Putnam, whose home is the only occupied residence in the permit area, agreed with Anderson.

“I would prefer they decide this on fact and not emotion,” he said, during a break in the hearings. “In 60 years, I’ve seen mining come and go. They would have you believing that all the birds have three wings. That’s crap. My family’s been there for 115 years. I’m drinking the water. History has spoken.”

Of the more than 50 speakers, the majority of them were against Powertech's planned mine.

Several came to the podium Monday with concerns that creation of the estimated 150 jobs is too risky to permit a Canadian company to mine an area that could be affected by a natural disaster even if the company was strictly regulated.

“I certainly would not want to drink a glass of water that came through that process,” said Frank Kloucek. “ … It jeopardizes the public’s water system. Anytime you do that, it’s a serious thing.”

Other residents voiced concern over the lack of regulation at the former Edgemont open mine pits from the 60s and 70s that left mill tailings and waste rock.

Cathy Sotherland said she lived on a hill overlooking the land and watched as clouds of tailings blew into town on a regular basis.

“There were no state regulations then, and there won’t be now,” she said. “I realize in situ mining is different. However, no mining is safe.”

Following the public comment period, chairperson Rex Hagg began the contested case hearing — which is a trial-like, evidence-based portion, and expected to take the rest of the week and possibly an additional week in the middle of November.

Hagg thanked the audience for coming and responded to assertions by some public speakers that the nine-member board had been lobbied and has already decided to grant the permit.

“We have not been influenced to do anything,” Hagg said. “We have not been lobbied by any government or pushed by anyone else … Hopefully you can accept my word.”

Bruce Ellison, a Rapid City attorney for several of the key interveners in the case, disagreed and asked board members to recuse themselves from the case if they were not willing to listen to the evidence with an open mind.

“I’m concerned members have already made up their mind,” he said. “The reason I say that is I overheard during the lunch break one of the board members say, ‘let’s just take a vote.’ That says to me that person’s mind is made up and I ask that they remove themselves.”

Hagg called the comment inappropriate.

“I’m not going to hear more,” he said. “That is close to insulting the board.”

The hearing continues today in the Best Western Ramkota Hotel and Conference Center, Sylvan I and II Room.

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