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Uranium Bills Fail In Committee

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The State Senate Ag and Natural Resources committee killed three bills aimed at providing more government oversight of uranium mining.
 
The committee meeting included heated testimony from those who say the current law doesn’t go far enough to protect South Dakota’s water from exploitation by mining companies.
 
But opponents challenged that current law is adequate, they say the proposed legislation is an effort to kill uranium mining in the state altogether.
 
SDPB’s Charles Michael Ray has today’s Dakota Digest on the debate in the state capitol over uranium mining.

Those who argue against uranium mining share a primary concern.  Water.  Daton Hyde founded the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary.  It is eleven thousand acres on the Cheyenne River South of Hot Springs. It is also down river from the proposed Powertech Uranium mine.  Hyde worries his wells  are set in the same aquifer targeted for mining.
 
“We only have three wells in the whole place all in the Inyan Kara (Aquifer) plus the river, to water 500 head of horses and about 100 head of cattle.  And, without that water we just can’t exist,” says Hyde. 
 
Hyde is among those who testified in favor of a bill that restores the state regulatory authority over certain aspects of uranium mining.   Two years ago the state legislature relinquished some authority over monitoring in-situ uranium mines to the feds.  The main argument back then was that duplicating oversight is a waste of taxpayer dollars.  But Rapid City Attorney Bruce Ellison argues that reinstating local control over uranium mines is the right thing to do.
 
“The NRC is in Washington. The EPA has a few staff members in Denver. They are not going to protect our water. Only we can do that,” says Ellison.   
 
But those opposed to the change included Steve Pirner the Secretary of South Dakota Department Environment and Natural Resources. Pirner argues that the state sometimes shares mining oversight with the feds.  But he says in this case there is no need to duplicate the regulations on both the state and federal level. 
 
“Our testimony two years ago, and especially with all the budget problems, is that in the foreseeable future we did not see us coming to the legislature to be delegated these two programs,” says Pirner.
 
Committee members express concern this bill increases the size of the government.  They voted the bill down by 7 to 1.   The committee then heard testimony on a second bill aimed at more strict regulation of uranium mines. Proponents argued that under current law a mining company doesn’t have to report a spill that results contamination for 30 days.    They backed a new 24-hour reporting requirement. Bruce Ellison says under current law…
 
“There are no civil or criminal penalties if the company reports within 30 days of finding out about a spill which is surface matter or an excursion which would be under, which would be apt for contamination.  30 days is a lot of contamination potentially,” says Ellison.
 
But others like Larry Mann a lobbyist for Wharf Resources argues that mining companies have a vested interest in policing themselves and protecting the environment. 
 
“We don’t want to be exposed to risk – We don’t want to have our permits pulled as a result of some kind of environmental incident,” says Mann.
 
Opponents went on to argue the proposed legislation is too broad and may end up hurting electric companies, feedlots and other businesses that are regulated by the DENR.   The committee killed the bill by a vote of 8 to 1. The final bill on Uranium mining considered in committee required mining companies to restore water quality to the same standard it was before mining began.   Lilias Jarding who holds a PhD in  Political Science with a specialty in Environmental Policy, is among those backing the measure.  Jarding says in situ uranium mining companies are currently allowed an exemption from the Clean Water Act.  She says this is wrong.
 
“This bill would enact reasonable control on these foreign corporations who can leave South Dakota and their wastes at the click of a mouse.  I don’t have to be a Ph.D. to know that these companies are concerned about profits first.  Uranium companies say they can mine safely and without contaminating our ground water this bill simple holds them to their word,” says Jarding.
 
But others like Mark Hollenbeck the Project Manager for Powertech, one company planning to mine Near Edgemont, argue that uranium containing aquifers are already contaminated with the radioactive ore itself.  Hollenbeck says this bill would result in more freshwater being used in the process – in the end meaning more water consumption in order to mine.
 

“The bill comes as an attempt to prohibit mining, prohibit in situ.  When you look at the information that the proponents have been passing out it says very clearly stop uranium mining in the Black Hills we need to stop it now.  This isn’t about making it safer this is about stopping it,” says Hollenbeck.
 
The committee agreed and also killed the bill by a vote of 8 to 1.   Hollenbeck and others who support uranium mining in the Black Hills insist it can be done safely.  He and his family are longtime residents and ranchers in Fall River County.  He says this sort of mining is good for the local economy. 
 
“I believe this mine should have a 40-million dollar a year impact so it’s significant it’s a significant amount of revenue so this project needs to move forward,” says Hollenbeck.
 
Those concerned that state regulations are too lenient on uranium mines worry that South Dakota is opening the door to a large number of outside mining companies that are eyeing the band of uranium containing rocks that circle the Black Hills, again - Bruce Ellison. 
 
“They could mine by Hermosa, there are big deposits they have found by there.   They are trying to get leases right outside of Rapid City. They could mine outside Sturgis and they could mine outside Spearfish.  They could mine outside Hot Springs.  What you do today on this bill will effect weather we have a food of these kinds of mine.  Remember the Black Hills are the aquifer recharge area for the Great Plains,” says Ellison.
 
While the House Ag and Natural Resources committee killed all three of these bills– this is by no means the end of the debate over uranium mining in South Dakota.   Next month the State Water Board is scheduled to consider the application for a water usage permit being requested by the Powertech uranium mine.
 

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