S.D. Uranium Mining Rules Stalled, Board Delays Decision Until Apriladmin
Ninety-four pages of proposed rules for uranium mining companies that need to obtain state groundwater permits were too much Wednesday for the South Dakota Water Management Board.
The panel had planned to make a decision on the rules but decided to delay it until a special meeting April 2-3 in Rapid City.
Board members want to know more about the in-situ mining process, in which oxygenated water and baking soda are injected underground to collect uranium oxide. The slurry is pumped back to the surface, dried and later processed into uranium pellets.
The pellets are used to fuel nuclear power plants. Demand for uranium has pushed prices to about $70 a pound; it was just $7 a pound five years ago.
Firms that want to mine for uranium in South Dakota will first have to get state groundwater permits from the Water Management Board and then mining permits from the Board of Minerals and Environment.
The proposed groundwater rules would require an application for a permit at least 270 days before construction of injection wells. Underground water supplies used for drinking purposes could not be injected. Monitoring plans would have to be developed and mitigating procedures used in instances when injected fluids are flowing toward water that can be used for human consumption.
Restoration of groundwater quality also is spelled out.
The Water Management Board hopes to have the rules finished within 75 days. The complexity of the proposed rules raised many questions Wednesday, and the board decided it needs more time to study them.
“I don’t have any idea what safety precautions are built into the process … especially what steps are taken to make sure it works the way it’s supposed to work,” said Rodney Freeman, a board member from Huron.
“We’re not sure where we fit into this process, how we fit,” added another board member, Francis Brink of Aberdeen.
An opponent of in-situ uranium mining warned that it will allow underground water supplies to be contaminated with radioactive and toxic substances.
“When we affect our aquifers, it’s not just tomorrow,” said Bruce Ellison, an attorney and landowner in the Rapid City area. “It’s the future generations we have to consider.”
The proposed groundwater rules are not tough enough, he said.
South Dakota should not allow its water supplies to be jeopardized by Powertech Uranium Corp. of Canada and other foreign companies that want to mine for the radioactive chemical element, Ellison said.
“These companies are here to make money. They’re not here to protect the environment,” he said. “This is potentially devastating mining. Why take the risk?”
Mark Hollenbeck, manager of Powertech’s uranium exploration project near Edgemont, said the proposed rules are nearly identical to those required by the Environmental Protection Agency. He added that area groundwater is of such poor quality that it will never be used for human consumption.
A rules exemption is provided where aquifers are not fit for drinking water or the water is so deep that recovering it is economically or technologically impractical.
Hollenbeck, a former state legislator, said Powertech has been drilling wells in Fall River County to document water quality in preparation for the state permits it will need to begin mining.
“We’re establishing baseline water quality samples and aquifer characteristics,” he said.
Actual mining of uranium is not likely to occur before 2010, Hollenbeck said.
Charmaine White Face, coordinator of the environmental group Defenders of the Black Hills, said in-situ mining may lead to contaminated water supplies. Even water that is deemed unusable today may someday be vital, she said.
“Please, make these rules with the health of your grandchildren in mind,” White Face told the board.