Native Sun News: Oglala Sioux continue fight over uranium plan

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman. All content © Native Sun News.

PINE RIDGE, SOUTH DAKOTA –– Cameco Corp., the Canadian uranium giant that faces opposition from Pine Ridge residents and tribal officials for its Crow Butte mining site in Nebraska, just got a green light from federal authorities for another project in Wyoming.

Cameco Corp.’s plans present “no major environmental impacts that would preclude licensing the Nichols Ranch uranium recovery project proposed for Johnson and Campbell counties in Wyoming,” the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) announced in late January.

If permitted, Cameco’s wholly-owned U.S. subsidiary Uranerz Energy Corp. would mine and mill uranium in the Pumpkin Buttes Uranium Mining District of the Powder River Basin, about 46 miles south-southwest of Gillette and 60 miles north-northeast of Casper.

The project would cover nearly 3,400 acres, of which about 300 acres would be directly affected by operations. The facility would send the concentrated raw material to commercial nuclear power plants. Uranerz (pronounced “Your Honors”) submitted a license application for the Nichols Ranch project on Nov. 30, 2007.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe and two Lakota non-profit organizations, Owe Aku (Bring Back the Way) and Defenders of the Black Hills, are among groups that oppose Northern Plains uranium in-situ leach (ISL) mining and milling by Cameco and the competing Canadian company Uranium One. The opponents argue the deep well drilling and disposal of uranium mine waste can negatively impact ground water.

“No corporation has ever been able to clean up the aquifers of an ISL uranium mine site,” Owe Aku founder Debra White Plume told the Native Sun News.

“The NRC determined only small to moderate environmental impacts would result from the construction, operation, aquifer restoration and decommissioning of the proposed in-situ recovery facility at the Nichols Ranch”, a Jan. 28 Federal Register notice states. “Most of the impacts are projected to be ‘small’, meaning they would be undetectable or so minor that they would not noticeably alter any important attribute of the resource in question,” the NRC said.

Its Nichols Ranch report, in the form of a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), mainly identifies socioeconomic impacts due to employee housing needs and economic activity generated by the facility.

Cameco received a permit to mine from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (WDEQ) in early January. But its subsidiary must clear other hurdles before going into construction.

A maximum annual 2 million pounds of yellowcake (U3O8) is expected from the Nichols Ranch, with production commencing in 2012, according to Uranertz.

Another Cameco subsidiary, Power Resources Inc. has had more than 40 license violations for well and waste water incompliance at the Highland Ranch site in Wyoming. In settlement agreements there, Cameco agreed to pay WDEQ $13,000 for failure to report one monitor well excursion and $5,000 for another solution excursion, both in 2009. The subsidiary also has received NRC license violation notifications at the Highland and Smith Ranch uranium operations.

Cameco Corp. is the world’s largest publicly traded uranium company. It is based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. In 2009, it was second only to the Russian state uranium mining company ARMZ, in production volume, accounting for 16 percent worldwide.

Its subsidiary Crow Butte Resources (formerly Wyoming Fuel Company) has been mining uranium for 28 years at the Crow Butte site just south of Crawford, Nebraska. The company is seeking a 10-year federal permit renewal at that site, as well as a permit to expand its ISL operations to one of several contemplated “satellite” locations nearby, known as the North Trend site. That operation would be just north of Crawford, some 30 miles from the southern border of the Pine Ridge Reservation.

ISL mining is a way to extract uranium from an underground ore body by using injection wells to pump solutions that pull up the mineral through pipes for refining into yellow cake. The U.S. EPA is looking into the effects of the subsequent discharge of the solutions in deep disposal wells.

Wyoming has more uranium resources than any other U.S. state.

White Plume notes that the groundwater impact of the uranium plans in Wyoming is part of a larger area-wide renewal of mining investment that includes parts of South Dakota and Nebraska.

(Talli Nauman is co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness. Contact her at

Join the Conversation