HOT SPRINGS — Three judges from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board traveled to Hot Springs Monday to hear from the public on Powertech Uranium Corp.’s controversial proposed Dewey-Burdock uranium mine project near Edgemont.
The judges convened the public hearing based on ten contentions brought forward by opponents.
Those contentions largely focused on a failure consult American Indian tribes on cultural heritage sites in the proposed mining area and failure to adequately analyze potential groundwater quality and quantity impacts.
About 100 people attended the first of two public sessions held Monday. Three days of evidentiary hearings in 11 a.m. today at the Alex Johnson Hotel in Rapid City where project interveners will make their arguments before the board.
The project, which would be about 15 miles northwest of Edgemont, would use the in-situ recovery process. The company would inject oxygenated water into the uranium containing aquifer to leach uranium out of the rock, making it water-soluble. The water is then pumped back to the surface, where uranium would be extracted.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) granted Powertech a license for Dewey-Burdock on April 8, four months in advance of this week’s 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. Powertech also 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 mining may begin.
A majority of the public speakers Monday were against the mine, citing concerns of potentially irreversible groundwater contamination, the large quantity of water used in the mining process, and the fact that Powertech Uranium Corp. is a Canadian-owned company in the process of being taken over by a Hong Kong-based mining investment company Azarga Resources.
“This is our drinking water, our bathing water,” said Hot Springs councilwoman DeAnn McComb. “This is a vacation area. Outsiders from foreign countries should not be able to destroy our way of life.”
Rapid City resident Sabrina King told the panel that the amount of water requested by Powertech is unacceptable to South Dakota citizens. The company has requested 9,000 gallons of water per minute out of the Madison and Inyan Kara aquifers. The Madison aquifer provides the majority of the greater Black Hills region — and beyond — with drinking water.
“They say they are only bleeding out, or using one to three percent of that at a time, but that is irrelevant,” she said. “That water will belong to them.”
Other speakers asked the judges to look closely at the history of uranium mining in the U.S., particularly the fact that no in situ recovery uranium mining operation has ever been able to restore mining groundwater to pre-mining conditions.
The NRC itself has stated that restoring an in situ recovery mined aquifer back to pre-mining conditions is “an impossibility.”
But a handful of speakers supported the mine, including Cindy Turner of Edgemont and member of the Southern Hills Economic Corporation. The corporation invited experts from the USGS, the DENR and the economic development sector to come and present during one of their meetings.
“We heard nothing detrimental,” she said. “I hope you will let this project move forward.”
Edgemont Mayor Carl Shaw agreed.
“I’m not concerned,” he said in a later interview. “The negative people are based on emotions. (Powertech) still has to follow state and federal regulations.”
Many residents of Edgemont support the project, he said, and more could come voice their opinions if a hearing was held in their community.
“We’re getting slapped in the face,” he said. “There’s a lot of older people, people on fixed incomes, people who work and can’t afford to come.”
Paul Vavholz, an engineer who has lived in Fall Fiver County for 20 years, said too many opinions on the Dewey-Burdock mine have been based on misinformation.
“It simply isn’t true that billions of (gallons) of water will be ruined or shipped out of state,” he said.
“Uranium will be mined on this planet and the U.S. is the safest place to do it,” he said. “ … In situ mining is an example of the type of innovation we need. If we stopped every innovation, we would have no air bags, no vaccines and no solar panels.”
The panel of judges expects to make a decision within three months. That decision can then be appealed to the NRC Commission and then federal court.
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