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State to rule Oct. 31 on request

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.
By Talli Nauman, Native Sun News

Map Image: Google Earth

Map Image: Google Earth

Health & Environment Editor PIERRE — The South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) announced Friday, Oct. 12, that Powertech (USA) Inc. has submitted four applications — for a large-scale mine permit, groundwater discharge plan and two water right permits — upstream from the Pine Ridge Reservation. The state is reviewing them to decide on the first uranium underground injection — or in-situ leach (ISL) — mine proposed for South Dakota.

“Given the time it will take to determine that the applications are complete, time to conduct technical reviews of the completed applications and the public comment periods, it will likely be sometime next spring before the Powertech applications are heard before the state boards,” said DENR Secretary Steve Pirner.

However, department staff are currently reviewing Powertech’s large-scale mine permit application for procedural completeness and will notify Powertech by Oct. 31 “whether the application is complete or if additional information is required,” DENR said in a written statement. Powertech submitted the large-scale mine application on Oct. 1 for its proposed Dewey-Burdock Project in the state’s southwestern counties of Custer and Fall River, adjacent to the Pine Ridge Reservation. Canadian Powertech Uranium Corp., parent company of Denver-based Powertech (USA) Inc., considers the 10,850-acre permit area on 18,000 acres of the Black Hills along the Cheyenne River to be a “flagship” site, with as much as 10.8 million pounds of uranium still left since its discovery in the area in the 1950s. Almost 20-percent owned by the Belgian corporation Synatom, Powertech hopes to sell uranium to that and other nuclear power interests. It plans to use injection wells to pump groundwater mixed with oxygen and carbon dioxide into ore deposits to dissolve uranium. So-called production wells then would be used to pump the uranium-laden fluids to the surface for recovery. The fluids would be processed at the mine site to extract and concentrate the uranium. After removal of the radioactive mineral, groundwater would be treated to meet standards.

Wastewater would be disposed by either injection wells federally permitted through the Environmental Protection Agency or by land application regulated through a DENR Ground Water Discharge Plan. Powertech has applied for both. It also has Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval pending in a process where tribal governments can make or break the deal. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is preparing a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) and Safety Evaluation Report (SER) for the project. It has accepted Powertech’s data for extracting uranium from the Inyan Kara group of host sandstones in the Southern Black Hills, the company announced Aug. 1. Powertech said in a written statement that it expects the SER to be completed by the end of October.

“Through several years of baseline data gathering, drilling of numerous additional confirmation drill holes, testing of the Inyan Kara aquifer, and subsequent analysis of all the collected data, the character of the Dewey-Burdock Project has been thoroughly outlined with sufficient detail for the NRC to undertake its comprehensive review,” the company stated. “We are very pleased that we have reached this milestone,” Powertech President Richard Clement told the media. “We look forward to completing the entire permitting process to begin operations on one of the best undeveloped uranium deposits known in the U.S.” However, tribal governments have delayed the project by stalling a cultural property survey proposal and detailed cost estimates requested by the NRC.

On Sept. 18, NRC Environmental Review Branch Chief Kevin Hsueh sent tribes a letter stating: “It is imperative that we proceed with identifying any National Historic Preservation Act-eligible properties before the end of the 2012 field season (i.e., in the fall 2012). The staff respectfully requests that the participating tribes designate a preferred contractor to complete a cultural resources survey on their behalf and provide NRC with a written proposal with cost estimate based on the 2,637-acre area that may be disturbed during the first phase of the proposed Dewey Burdock project.” He addressed the letter to the Crow Nation, Oglala Sioux Tribe, Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Yankton Sioux Tribe, who participated in a project meeting with NRC representative Jean Trefethen and NRC contractor Randy Withrow in Bismarck, N.D., on Sept. 5. He requested the response by October.

Since the first formal Section 106 consultation meeting with the tribes seven months ago, Powertech presented a draft Scope of Work in May, and the tribes responded with a revised version on Sept. 3. In his letter, Hsueh said the tribes must complete a “final eligibility report” no later than 60 days following completion of the field survey. The report must provide the location of all identified historic preservation sites, a description of where each site is located in relationship to areas that will be directly impacted by planned operations, and recommendations regarding the eligibility of each site for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

The NRC wants the tribes to contract with Powertech rather than the NRC for this work. But since the first consultation meeting, tribal representatives have refused.

Originally, Powertech also faced a state permitting process for the underground injection, as a result of rules established through a laborious public planning process carried out during the past five years. However, after failing twice to gain DENR approval of the permit application, company representatives last year convinced the 2011 Legislature that state oversight duplicated EPA’s, achieving a statute that relieved the department of regulatory and public information access duties.

The South Dakota Alliance for Progress alleged that the move to shelve state supervision was an end-run around the permit process. “If there is ever a more cynical method of bypassing legitimate governmental oversight, we fail to see it,” the Rapid City-based organization said in a written declaration. When Native American Sen. Jim Bradford, D-Pine Ridge, and other legislators tried to repeal the legislation this year, they failed.

They were responding to Lakota activists, as well as non-Indian constituents, who like Owe Aku founder Debra White Plume, questioned, “Why make it easier for corporations to damage our environment?”

DENR notes that most of the project area is on private land. About 240 acres inside the permit boundary are under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. Powertech proposes to disturb 2,528 to 3,792 acres depending upon whether deep well injection or the land application is used for wastewater disposal. The estimated production is one million pounds of uranium oxide (U3O8) per year. The estimated duration of the operation would be 20 years.

(Contact Talli Nauman at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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