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Modern Gold Exploration In The Black Hills

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In The Moment ... October 18. 2018 Show 444 Hour 2

The South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources is granting a third temporary water use permit for gold exploration in the Black Hills.

It allows a Canadian company to pull water from Rapid Creek, west of Rapid City until the end of the year.

Even though it's an early stage in the process, the mining exploration in the Black Hills shows potential.

Down this gravel road, Mineral Mountain Resources, is searching for gold. The site is east of the old mining town of Rochford, which predates South Dakota statehood. The Standby Mine property is on private land – and it’s a place that’s seen underground exploration before.

“We use this term, if we’re looking for elephants we’re going to look in elephant country. Same when it comes for minerals.”

That’s Andrea Brickey, an associate professor of Mining Engineering and Management at South Dakota School of Mines.

“If we’re looking for gold we’re going to look where we typically find gold. If we’re looking for iron we’re going to look where we typically find iron, where the geologic environments have those minerals,”

Brickey says once a company has identified promising areas they start exploration drilling.

That’s what the Canadian company Mineral Mountain Resources is doing, and has been for a year and a half. Brickey says exploration crews take underground samples to determine geological formations.

The material can offer an idea of the kind of mineral deposits in the area. Officials with the company did not return multiple calls and emails requesting an interview for this story.

The Rapid City Journal reports, the company has already drilled nine holes 1,000 ft deep, and has state permission to drill 111 more.

State documents show four other companies have conducted drilling in the same general area.

The state recently approved a third temporary water permit for Mineral Mountain to continue exploratory drilling which runs through December 31st.

Rapid City attorney Matthew Naasz is an attorney for the company. He says Mineral Mountain resumed it’s most recent operations in October.

“And probably take a Christmas break. If they don’t want to take a Christmas break they don’t have to, but they’re going to take a new years break, because they’re going to be done by then. They’re not going to pump water from Rapid Creek pursuant to this temporary permit after the first of the year. They understand that.”

Naasz says the company mixes creek water with bentonite to keep the drill lubricated as it bores into the ground. Bentonite is a naturally occurring clay.

The most recent temporary water permit lets the company use 800-thousand gallons through the end of the year. That’s about 200 gallons a minute. A water permit from the state is one of the few approvals companies need to explore for gold in the Black Hills.

Mike Lees is the administrator of the Minerals and Mining Program at the DENR. He says it’s a common misconception that gold exploration requires a number of licenses, permits and approvals.

“A lot of people who were concerned about the exploration activity, in particular Mineral Mountain Resources, I don’t think they understand that it was not the full blown mine permitting process. Really, what we were dealing with is the exploration, which is much narrower in scope and scale than a full blown mining operation.”

Lees says once a company moves to full scale underground exploration, the permit process becomes more complex and can take up to a year.

Companies are required to post a 20-thousand dollar bond. If their underground work turns into a mine, Lees says the bond for a large scale mine is 100 percent of the cost of reclamation.

Mining permits come from a number of state and federal agencies.

DENR protects water resources, the state Game, Fish and Parks tracks any endangered species in the area, and the state archeologist imposes restrictions if there are cultural or archeological findings on the site.

Jerry Krueger is the Deputy Forest Supervisor for the Black Hills National Forest. He says the forest service has reviewed the company’s plan of operation. Mineral Mountain Resources has not proposed any mining operations at this time. IF Mineral Mountain proposed a sub-surface mine, Krueger says the forest service would evaluate both potential surface and sub-surface disturbances.

“It would be a separate environmental analysis that would look specifically at the effects of whatever activity they were proposing,”

Krueger says many people ask the forest service to deny any permits for mining companies. He says that’s not an option.

“We have authority to talk about when, where, how, and negotiate that with the company based on potential effects” Kreuger says. “But we don’t have the authority to simply say ‘no.’

Krueger says that’s because mining laws give people with a valid gold claim the “right to mine” on public land.

It’s favorable mining laws from the 19th century that led to the Black Hills gold rush and non-Native settlement in the region.

Joe Buck Colombe is a caretaker of Bison at Pe Sla, a prairie formation in the center of the Black Hills.

It’s a sacred site to the Oceti Sakowin tribes, and south west of the exploratory drilling. Colombe says tribes are concerned about unforeseen harm to the land.

“What we try to teach our youth in Indian Country is to protect and preserve what’s here for us,” Colombe says. “Mining minerals out of the ground is something that could potentially be devastating to our natural resources.”

Tribal representatives met last year with the forest service , but that was for the exploration drilling over public land which hasn’t begun yet.

Some local residents and tribal leaders are concerned about the resurgence of gold mining activity in the Black Hills. They worry about the affects on natural resources. However Andrea Brickey, with the School of Mines, insists that mining technology has come a long way.

“When you think of mining, what do you think of?” Brickey says. “A guy with a donkey underground and a canary, whatnot. But that’s not the way we mine.”

Brickey says improvements in technology also limit the number of exploratory sites that develop into mining operations.

She points to a 1983 Canadian report, which says only one out of every 1000 deposits studied became mines. Now, 35 years later, it could be even rarer.

Despite those odds, Mineral Mountain Resources appears to like its chances and continues to explore.