A sign at a Powertech site in Colorado. The company is behind the Dewey Burdock Uranium Project in South Dakota.

Native Sun News: Oglala Sioux Tribe victory in uranium case

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Uranium mine opponents claim victory

NRC judges side with Oglala Sioux Tribe
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

DEWEY-BURDOCK –– Native American and other opponents of uranium mining and milling in the southern Black Hills claimed victory April 30, when a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) oversight panel ruled in their favor on the controversial licensing of an in situ operation here.

The three-judge panel of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) agreed with the Oglala Sioux Tribe and other interveners in an administrative case that the federal agency’s staff failed to follow proper procedures in extending a federal radioactive materials permit to Azarga Uranium Corp. (formerly Powertech Uranium Corp.)

Oglala Sioux Tribal Attorney Jeffrey Parsons said the long-awaited ruling “confirms major flaws in the company’s analysis” of the proposal to conduct in situ, or solution, mining and milling on a 10,000-acre site at the headwaters of the Cheyenne River 50 miles upstream from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the adjacent counties of Fall River and Custer.

The tribe “has argued from the start of this process over five years ago: Powertech, Azarga and the NRC staff have never conducted an adequate review of impacts to cultural resources, and also did not impose sufficient controls to protect aquifers from contamination through historic drill holes,” Parsons said in a written statement.

More than 200 sacred and archeological sites are known to share the property north of Edgemont with 169 abandoned uranium mines and at least 7,500 of exploration drill holes that remain in the project area from previous operations dating back to the 1950s and 1970s.

This project would be the first in situ, or solution, mining for South Dakota. The company seeks state water rights indefinitely for 8,500 gallons per minute of water from the Inyan Kara Aquifer and another 500 gallons per minute from the Madison Aquifer, the drinking water source of the main cities in the area.

The ASLB panel sent the NRC staff back to the drawing board in the licensing process, requiring proper consultation with the tribe to protect Native American cultural resources and mandating further action to protect water resources if the project is to go forward.

According to the National Environmental Policy Act, a license cannot be issued until the cultural resources process is completed, due to the National Historic Preservation Act.

The ASLB decision addressed a violation of the NRC's own standards, according to Debra White Plume, founder of the Manderson-based Owe Aku (Bring Back the Way), an intervener in the case. She called it “a battle victory in the multilayered, protracted paper war to protect sacred water and cultural and sacred places from extractive industries that intend to operate without meaningful regulation and oversight."

The Dewey-Burdock site at the headwaters of the Cheyenne River 50 miles from the Pine Ridge Reservation is proposed as the first site for mining uranium in South Dakota’s underground water table. Photo courtesy Azarga Uranium Corp.

Contributing to the ruling was expert analysis by geologist Hannan LaGarry, who testified that the drill holes, faults, at least one sinkhole, and artesian springs at the project site create the likelihood that water contamination could not be controlled if mining is allowed to proceed.

The ASLB ruling requires that, prior to conducting any more tests at the site, the company must “attempt to locate and properly abandon all historic drill holes located within the perimeter well ring for the well field.”

It states that “the licensee will document, and provide to the NRC, such efforts to identify and properly abandon all drill holes.”

The ruling comes a year after NRC staff granted the license that sparked the contested case, hearings, protest rallies, street demonstrations, a flurry of legal filings, and numerous community events.

“We have been heard and acknowledged,” said Sarah Peterson, a participant in the Fall River County grassroots movement It’s All About the Water.

Joining her in a statement was Lilias Jarding, founder of the Black Hills Clean Water Alliance, an intervener in the case. She said she hopes “the company and the NRC recognize the significance of the ruling today, and they will stop trying to both gloss over the serious problems with the proposed project and to move forward on the cheap.”

Gena Parkhurst, chair of the Black Hills Chapter of the statewide non-profit Dakota Rural Action, agreed, adding: “We must protect our water and our economy from imprudent development of radioactive uranium mining.”

Azarga Uranium Corp. calls Dewey-Burdock is its flagship project for breaking into the U.S. uranium mining business. With offices in British Colombia, Canada and Colorado, the penny stock’s majority investors are located in China, Singapore and Australia.

On April 27, it announced that it has complied with demands from another oversight panel, the Toronto Stock Exchange.

The TSX, as it’s called, also sent Azarga back to the drawing board – in this instance, for omissions in its required Preliminary Economic Assessment (PEA) of the Dewey-Burdock Uranium ISR Project, filed March 14.

In response, the company bolstered its case with financial data, saying, “Both the recovery rate and base-sales price used in the March PEA remained unchanged but were supplemented by additional information in the April PEA Update.

“An 80-percent recovery rate was further supported with additional information from similar projects, specifically referencing recovery at the Smith Ranch and Highland In situ recovery projects owned by arm’s-length third parties about 90 miles from the Dewey-Burdock Project site,” it said.

Azarga maintained in its statement that it “has received its Nuclear Regulatory Commission license and is in the process of completing all other major regulatory permit approvals necessary for operation of the project including those from the Environmental Protection Agency and the South Dakota Department of Natural Resources.”

The EPA has yet to schedule hearings on allowing the company to inject contaminated mine water underground and on the company’s request for an exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act. The mine water would be treated and injected back underground or released on the surface, depending on permits.

The EPA is on the verge of issuing new ground water protection standards at facilities that extract uranium using the in situ leach process.

In response to Clean Water Alliance, EPA scheduled public hearings in Chadron, Neb., May 12, about the proposed revisions to 40 CFR 192, “Health and Environmental Protection Standards for Uranium and Thorium Mill Tailings.”

In addition, the agency has extended the deadline for the comment period for written submissions from April 27 to May 27.

Clean Water Alliance and Dakota Rural Action said they support the regulations changes and want members of the public to comment that they should be made stronger by requiring that “no new ISL mines be permitted at any site unless the proponent first reclaims any prior contamination from mining in the proposed ore body.”

The suggestion follows a national demand of “Clean Up the Mines,” an advocacy group of Native American and other constituents, which launched a campaign in April 2014 seeking Congressional support to prevent new licensing until old contamination is remediated and stiffer regulations are in place.

Current EPA rules on uranium mining date to 1995, before solution mining became popular.

Due to limited space at the Scotts Bluff Room of the Chadron State College Student Center, the EPA’s suggested deadline for registering for the hearings there is May 7. Sessions were scheduled to run from 1 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. at the venue located at 1000 Main Street in Chadron.

Likewise, registration for hearings in Casper, Wyoming, closes on May 7. The hearings were scheduled to take place at the South Ballroom of the Best Western Ramkota Hotel, 800 N. Poplar St. from 6 to 8 p.m. on May 13 and from 9 a.m. to noon on May 14.

Online registration and background information are available at the following Internet address: www.epa.gov/radiation/tenorm/40CFR192.html

Written comment can be submitted at www.regulations.gov by following the instructions, or by email to a-and-r-docket@epa.gov. They can be sent by fax to 202-566-9744 or mailed to: Air and Radiation Docket, Environmental Protection Agency, Mailcode: 2822T, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW., Washington, DC 20460.

Comments should reference Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2012-0788.

(Contact Talli Nauman, Health and Environment Editor for Native Sun News can be reached at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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