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Board rejects attempt to restart uranium-mine permitting

Nuclear Regulatory Commission
The site of a proposed uranium mine in South Dakota.

A Canadian company hoping to open a uranium mine in the southern Black Hills can't restart its South Dakota water permitting process just yet.

The South Dakota Water Management Board unanimously rejected Powertech Inc.'s request Wednesday after opposition from dozens of citizens, intervenors and state officials.

Board members said they don't want to waste more time and money since Powertech is still seeking some federal permits while others are tied up in the courts.

"I just don't think it's appropriate for the State of South Dakota and this board to spend millions of dollars once again on an issue and then have the rug pulled out from under our feet after we've made a decision," said board member Rodney Freeman.

"I just don't think it's appropriate for the State of South Dakota and this board to spend millions of dollars once again on an issue and then have the rug pulled out from under our feet after we've made a decision."
Rodney Freeman, South Dakota Water Management Board

The board already paused its consideration of the Dewey-Burdock Project back in 2013 at the request of Powertech, just a year after the company began the permitting process. Powertech has been pursuing federal permits and licenses since then.

Powertech, a subsidiary of Azarga Uranium, which is based in British Columbia, hopes to locate a uranium mine near Edgemont in Custer and Fall River counties. It plans to use the “in situ” method, which involves drilling wells to inject a water-based solution underground, dissolve the uranium and draw it to the surface for processing. The company says nuclear energy is environmentally friendly since it's carbon-free.

Uranium was mined in open pits and tunnels in the Edgemont area from the 1950s to the 1970s. That era left unreclaimed mines, buried radioactive waste and health concerns.

Powertech already owns the land and submitted water permits back in 2012. It asked the board to put the project on hold in 2013 before asking to restart the process this May.

Two programs at the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources are opposed to restarting the permit process.

The Water Rights and Surface Water Quality programs are represented by Assistant Attorney General Ann Mines Bailey who, like the board, focused on the pending federal permits.

Bailey said the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted Powertech a permit back in 2014 but it was appealed and handed back to the NRC for revisions. The NRC granted a new permit which is under a new federal appeal. Powertech also obtained permits from the Environmental Protection Agency, which are being appealed in federal courts or reviewed through the administrative process.

Powertech is still waiting for approval from the Bureau of Land Management, Bailey said.

Matthew Naasz, a Rapid City-based attorney representing Powertech, was the only person who spoke in favor of restarting the permitting process.

"Powertech has rights, too. Powertech has the rights to have its applications heard on the merits," he said. "There's no legal impediment to moving this matter forward, no reason these matters can't go forward in parallel."

Naasz said the water board is setting a new precedent by refusing to hear arguments about state permits while waiting on permits outside of its jurisdiction.

But Bailey said this is an unprecedent case: "The reality is this board doesn't have any other litigation that's been on hold for eight years. I hope we never run into this type of situation again, quite honestly."

Intervenors and people who spoke during public comment focused on the pending federal permits but other concerns as well. The speakers included people who live near the proposed mine, environmental activists, the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and tribal members.

“We’ve had uranium mining in our county before," said Randy Luallin, of Hot Springs. "It was a boondoggle, the taxpayers ended up cleaning up the mess, and here we are again.”

Debra Lackey-Hay, who grew up in Edgemont, said she lived near sulfuric acid, which was used to leach the uranium. She said the acid killed her father, who died of throat cancer.

"I've lived with this issue most of my life," she said.

Other concerns included treaty rights, water pollution and supply, and Powertech's status as a subsidiary of a foreign company.

Keystone XL permits canceled

The board also unanimously voted to cancel TC Energy's water permits for the defunct Keystone XL Pipeline project.

TC Energy asked the board to cancel its permits for water from the Cheyenne, Bad and White rivers. Some audience members cheered after the vote, according to Rebecca Terk, who lobbies for Dakota Rural Action, which opposed the pipeline.

The vote is the latest step TC Energy has taken to pull its permits, land and infrastructure out of the state.

Arielle Zionts, rural health care correspondent, is based in South Dakota. She primarily covers South Dakota and its neighboring states and tribal nations. Arielle previously worked at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where she reported on business and economic development.