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Four-State Uranium Conference Held in Rapid City

December 13, 2009

SD Uranium Mine Request Deficient

by Shirley Frederick, Rapid City

[reprinted from EcoForum June/July 2009]

When 25 activists from four states gathered in Rapid City May 2 to discuss nuclear energy and uranium mining, the conversation turned slightly radioactive.

For starters, group members strongly objected to the oft-repeated industry claim that nuclear energy is the solution to energy independence and global warming. Their views were expressed dramatically in a screening of a new ten-minute documentary film Yellowcake, produced by Colorado Citizens Against Toxic Waste. The film takes into account the water contamination and environmental destruction caused by uranium mining. Large amounts of carbon-based energy are required for the mining and transport of uranium and the design, construction, and operation of nuclear power plants. Altogether, the film says, it just doesn’t add up to the industry billing of clean, safe, carbon-free energy.

Of the four states represented at the conference, Wyoming and Nebraska already have in situ leach (ISL) uranium mines in operation. In the ISL process a basic solution is injected into an aquifer to dissolve uranium. The “pregnant” solution is removed from the aquifer, and an ion exchange process removes the uranium, which is then called yellowcake.

Learn more about uranium mining on the High Plains:

Cameco, a Canadian mining company, operates the Crow Butte mine near Crawford, Nebraska. Residents living downwind and downstream have challenged a proposed expansion, and a three-member panel of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled that they have standing to challenge the expansion. This standing is based on the potential impacts of expansion on surface and groundwater and foreign ownership of the company. A hearing on these issues was scheduled for Rapid City June 11. One legal question to be considered was: Does the NRC have the authority under the Atomic Energy Act to grant a uranium mining permit to a company not based in the United States? An answer of no would have a major impact because the majority of uranium mining companies currently active or proposing action in the U.S. are foreign-owned.

Enter the NRC. In a May 18 ruling the four members of the commission overturned decisions of the administrative law panel. The foreign ownership objection was dismissed and the argument that the Crow Butte mine released arsenic into drinking water was deemed speculative. The issue of possible surface and groundwater contamination has yet to be resolved.

Wyoming’s uranium mining resisters have been monitoring the Smith Ranch/Highland operation near Douglas, Wyoming, an ISL mine operated by Power Resources Inc. This company has been cited by the state for “an inordinate number of spills, leaks and other releases… serious deficiencies with both permits,” inadequate reclamation, inadequate bonding, and problems with staff. There has been both surface and groundwater pollution with radioactive materials. One group member asked, “How many violations do you have to have before the place is shut down?” The reply: “They [the mining company] want to keep the mine open to avoid the cleanup costs.”

In Colorado and South Dakota activists have mounted strong resistance campaigns against uranium mining proposals. Powertech USA, a subsidiary of a Canadian mining company funded by venture capital, is currently exploring in the Dewey-Burdock area near Edgemont, South Dakota. Despite numerous interventions by Defenders of the Black Hills, the company is proceeding with its exploratory activity and is preparing to apply to the state for a mining permit. The same company has encountered a rougher road when attempting to set up a mining operation near Fort Collins, Colorado.

“Powertech did what any good bureaucracy will do when faced with a complex issue: It ground to a halt.”

In 2008 a coalition of mining opponents shepherded through the Colorado Legislature bipartisan legislation applying tough restrictions to ISL uranium mining. At the same time, Coloradoans Against Resource Destruction educated local residents about the down side of having a uranium mine in your back yard. The political climate in Colorado alongside citizen activism paid off. As one activist said, “Powertech did what any good bureaucracy will do when faced with a complex issue: It ground to a halt.”

Well, not quite. Powertech is currently drilling wells near Wellington for an aquifer pump test to collect data for a possible mining operation. Powertech continues to look to South Dakota, where Edgemont residents want jobs, and state mining laws are lax. In 2008 the state revised its water laws to allow ISL mining without requiring the mining companies to return water quality to its pre-mining condition. The 4.5% state severance tax on mined uranium is an added incentive for legislative support. Defenders members have intervened at every step of the Powertech permitting process and are networking with allies as they plan their next move.

On June 11 the NRC met with Powertech officials in Washington, D.C. and rejected the company’spermit application. The commission stated that Powertech failed to provide documentation that the proposed mining area is free of geologic faults or other avenues of groundwater migration away from the mine site. Powertech must provide the NRC with additional information about its waste disposal plan and other details of its proposed operation. Recently Powertech announced the withdrawal of its application in order to provide the requested information. Some of that information is contained in the Underground Injection Control Permit which has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Four State Conference was part information exchange, part network building, and part strategy session. While anti-mining activists do not rely solely on court action, in the words of one strategist, “Lots of facts and good information come out of these lawsuits.” Group members were cautioned not to look for the silver bullet but instead to continue with grassroots organizing and strategizing. “Our job,” said one group member, “is to keep the rat in the maze. As soon as it sees the cheese, we move the cheese.”

Thanks to Rapid City attorney Bruce Ellison for help with the legal issues described in the article.

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