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Fall River Co. residents vote on whether to ban uranium mining

A political sign on Minnekahta Ave. in Hot Springs asking voters to declare uranium mining a nuisance.
Lee Strubinger
A political sign on Minnekahta Ave. in Hot Springs asking voters to declare uranium mining a nuisance.

Some residents in Fall River County want to declare uranium mining a nuisance.

If approved, a unique ballot measure could give voters in this southwestern corner of the state a say over the future of a project that’s been stuck in permitting limbo for more than a decade.

Susan Henderson went to school in Edgemont when a uranium mill operated in town in the 1950s and 60s. The Fall River Rancher said there were devastating consequences.

“I can remember watching my classmate’s mothers coming down with cancer because they’d gotten exposed to uranium around the area," Henderson said.

The mill in town processed uranium from the nearby Dewey-Burdoch site. That uranium operation shut down in 1972. Now, a new company wants to develop that same site.

enCore Energy wants to extract uranium from the Dewey-Burdoch site using a process called in-situ extraction. That process injects water with elevated levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide into the ground. The process loosens and removes uranium ore deposits from the underground sandstone.

Uranium mining proponents say that process is safer for workers.

The project has residents like Henderson concerned, especially with the proposal for wastewater treatment from the site.

“So, then their proposal is to put that back down into the ground, into the aquifers, as a disposal method," Henderson said. "Hello. So, what we’re going to do is pollute the water we use for our cities, our towns, our ranches, our farms.”

Henderson’s parents settled in Fall River County in 1902 and she took over the ranch in the early 90s. She worries the project could affect her cattle operation. Henderson, along with others in the county, are asking county residents to declare uranium mining a nuisance. They say, if passed, the ballot measure would prevent uranium mining from taking place in Fall River County.

While there’s continued debate over the potential environmental consequences of such a project, for now, the focus is on whether a county ballot measure has the authority to say no to the project.

Mark Hollenbeck, manager for the Dewey Burdock uranium project, said even if it’s approved, the ballot measure will not prevent his company from starting the project.

“There’s a state law that says that anything that’s licensed by the state cannot be declared a nuisance at the local level,” Hollenbeck said. “So, I really don’t think it has much effect on us.”

Lee Strubinger

Hollenbeck said the issue boils down to property rights.

“As a rancher I don’t like it at all, because basically it allows people to steal property rights," Hollenbeck said. "All of the ranchers who are currently mineral right holders on the site—there’s a group of people in Fall River County attempting to steal their mineral rights from them.”

Fall River County State’s Attorney Lance Russel said the county’s power scope is limited. He explained that to commissioners at a county board meeting in August.

“If this came up as a regular ordinance, we wouldn’t have the authority to do this under state law,” Russel said. “The field has been preempted, so to speak. That’s a legal understanding.”

Russel said the state has not given counties power to regulate uranium mining. He said that means a county cannot ban such activities either.

“I would submit to you that if no government office or any political subdivision of the state has the authority to require or issue a permit it certainly can’t ban it without due process of law,” Russel added.

enCore Energy continues to seek permits from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and water permits from the state. The permitting process has been going on for 16 years.

Fall River County does not have a planning and zoning ordinance. It has a Land Use Policy that was adopted in 2011. It’s often referred to as a Code of the West.

Proponents of the ballot question said because the county lacks planning and zoning the voters can weigh in.

Jim Sword is an attorney for rancher Susan Henderson.

“When you don’t have a planning and zoning ordinance the only ordinance you have is the nuisance ordinance," Sword said. "So, we took advantage of state statutes that allow us to do this and the absence of a proper planning and zoning with a comprehensive plan. That’s why Fall River is a little bit different than everybody else.”

Sword said the folks with the most to lose – local residents – have not weighed in on the project, yet.

“So, we’re going to have a vote,” Sword said. “The only people that are going to look after the people’s health safety and welfare are the people of this county. And we have to live with the consequences.”

Uranium project manager Mark Hollenbeck declined to say whether the company would challenge the ballot measure if it passes.

Election day is November 8.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.