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EPA Hearings Bring Back Decade Old Uranium Debate To Black Hills

Lee Strubinger

A uranium mining company, Powertech, has spent over a decade seeking permits to extract uranium from the Inyan Kara aquifer in the Southern Black Hills near Edgemont.

The Environmental Protection Agency just wrapped up several hearings in and around the Black Hills on permits for the project.

Officials with the company say 20 percent of electricity in the US is nuclear energy powered by imported uranium.

Opponents of uranium mining say the project puts a vital resource at risk -- water. But project managers and supporters say uranium extraction has come a long way since the old mining days.

It’s a decade long debate that runs deeper than the three aquifers located in the Black Hills. Should water resources be put at risk to extract uranium for nuclear energy?

Lilias Jarding has a doctorate in Environmental Policy. She’s with the Clean Water Alliance. That group says water should take importance over mining radioactive material.

“If the uranium company gets these permits from the EPA it would basically be giving them a license to pollute two out of our three major aquifers in the Black Hills,” Jarding says.

Jarding says even with a new energy friendly administration, under President Donald Trump, she’s confident the project will get denied.

“’We’re absolutely hopeful, we believe this will be stopped.’" Jarding says. "‘Because we’ve stopped it before in the Black Hills.’”

A Burlington Northern Santa Fe train carrying coal from Gillette, Wyoming, rolls through southwestern South Dakota. It’s the soundtrack for Edgemont, a small town nestled down between the southern Hills and national grassland. It’s a crossroads for BN-SF, where coal can be headed in any direction across the country.

“A trainload of 120 car loads of coal, one after the other," says Mark Hollenbeck. He lives in the area and is the project manager for the Dewey Burdock uranium recovery site.

Hollenbeck, with the help of Powertech USA, has worked for years to receive a green light from the Environmental Protection Agency to start extracting uranium in the Southern Hills -- more specifically in southwestern Custer County and northwestern Fall River County on the Wyoming/South Dakota border.

He says he’s toured two nearby uranium operations.

“There’s one just south of Edgemont in Crawford, Nebraska, that’s been operating since 1989. There’s one west of Edgemont, north of Douglas that’s been operating since the ‘70s. What I saw… so little impact on the environment compared to the amount of energy extracted. I believe this is the smallest footprint of any energy source that we use. That includes solar, that includes wind, and that includes coal.”

Hollenbeck estimates the Powertech uranium project in Edgemont will create upwards of 60 to 80 jobs for about twenty years. He says that’s a conservative estimate.

What Hollenbeck, and Powertech, hope to receive are exemption permits from the Safe Drinking Water Act. That would allow the company to extract uranium over the Dewey-Burdock site via an in-situ recovery method  from the Inyan Kara aquifer. In-situ recovery is the process of injecting ground water with elevated levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide, through the aquifer to extract and remove uranium ore deposits from the sand stone underground.

It’s a little different from how uranium was mined in the past.

Edgemont residents are no strangers to uranium.

Clarence Anderson worked at the old uranium mill east of Edgemont. It was in operation from the mid 1950’s to mid 1970’s. Anderson describes how they used to mine uranium.

“The early mining and milling, we had to bring the ore in and crush it and grind it and leach it and then strip the uranium out,” Anderson says.

During EPA hearings in Edgemont last week, Anderson testified in favor of the project.

“This in-situ leaching, they go in and put in injection wells and suction wells and they go down and inject he oxygen and carbon dioxide into the ground to get down to where the uranium is, they re-oxidize the uranium in the ground, put it into a solution, bring it back out, run it through giant water softeners, take the uranium out, take more oxygen and carbon dioxide and re-inject it," Anderson says. "They basically do that until they’ve virtually cleaned out the formation.”

Hundreds, if not thousands of injection wells go into the ground and pump an elevated solution to extract uranium.

Credit SDPB
This area just north of Edgemont, SD is near the proposed mine site.

After uranium is extracted, the liquid used to pull uranium from the ground has to go somewhere. That’s why Powertech needs a second permit… to store that treated water in the ground. In this case, Powertech hopes to store it in a certain portion of the Minnelusa aquifer via deep disposal wells. Before Powertech receives that permit, they have to prove the injectant won’t migrate to any other aquifers in the area.

Doug Minter is with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mountain-Prairie region based out of Denver. He’s manager of the Underground Injection Control Program.

He says the EPA believes uranium mining can take place in the Dewey Burdock site and wastewater can be managed effectively.

“We believe there’s a way for uranium recovery to go forward in a way that’s still protective of the underground sources of drinking water above and below where they propose to mine, as well as away from the area that we call exempted,” Minter says.

Minter says more than one permit needs granting before uranium mining can take place. If the first of two permits are granted, the company still needs to prove the Minnelusa aquifer is viable for wastewater storage, and won’t leak into the Madison aquifer, where many South Dakotan’s draw their water.

“We haven’t made that permitting decision. If we do, that does not allow the company to operate those wells," Minter says. "They then would have to come in with a large suite of data to inform the geology to say ‘is this, in fact, going to work.’ Until we get to that point, if we do, it’s really hard to know what, whether the data we have is in fact correct for this particular location right here in the Black Hills, and more specifically in that project area.”

Minter says pending EPA approval, Powertech still needs the go-ahead from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the South Dakota Department of Natural Resources.

But others aren’t convinced the project is safe.

Deborah White Plume is Oglala Lakota and from the Pine Ridge Reservation… Outside of those same EPA hearings in the St. James Catholic Church in Edgemont, she says the project is bound to effect water in western South Dakota.

“We have sacred mountains here, sacred prairies here, which are tied to the ceremonies of our people since beyond memory," White Plume says. "It’s our obligation and our duty to want to preserve those for coming generations and for all people in South Dakota, Wyoming, the whole Great Plains region, basically. Particularly because these waterways are connected to the Missouri River, the Cheyenne River, the Mississippi River.”

The EPA says they will know in the coming months whether they plan on issuing the permits Powertech needs to move forward with extracting uranium from the Black Hills. The price of uranium has decline over the last ten years, peaking in mid-2007. Stocks for Powertech’s parent company, Azarga Uranium, have also declined over that time.