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Meeting on uranium is slated for Monday

BELFIELD -- A public informational meeting about uranium is being held here at 6:30 p.m. on Monday at the American Legion Hall.

The North Dakota Geological Survey is sponsoring the public meeting which will present information on uranium deposits found in the area. State Geologist Ed Murphy is one of the speakers for the meeting.

Murphy said the geological survey is going through a rule-making process for updated uranium mining techniques that have not yet happened in the state, but have cropped up in other states.

"The goal of the meeting is to update people on the new rules which are almost in their final format," Murphy said. "In last couple years, the Geological Survey put together uranium maps in the area. People can go on our Web site to find them too."

One of the Geological Survey's duties is to map the mineral resources of the state, he added.

The new rules address the mining technique which is called institu leach or ISL.

"It pumps oxygenated water into an aquifer that contains uranium which releases the uranium from the rocks, pumping it up and running it through a series of pellets that remove the uranium," Murphy said of ISL. "It's been said it works like a water softener. The water is then pumped back down."

This is the first time the department is discussing ISL and the rules being created for it. A first draft of the rules has been reviewed by the North Dakota Public Service Commission, the North Dakota Department of Health and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Murphy said.

"That's why we wanted to come out there," he added. "The rules are pretty technical and we wanted to be able to hopefully explain to people so they can understand."

Geologists and others are now writing the second draft of rules which go to the state's Attorney General Office for review. Once that is finished, the rules go to the state Industrial Commission.

"Then we'll go through the formal rule-making process and set a date for the rule hearing," Murphy said. "We'll advertise in all state newspapers about the hearing to give people the opportunity for oral or written testimony. We'll also make rules available for people to read on our Web site or otherwise."

The formal hearing is slated for sometime in late spring or early summer in Bismarck, he added.

"We just thought if this ISL takes place...let's talk to the people out there first," Murphy said. "This is unusual. We usually don't come out (with an informational meeting) in the rule-making process."

Belfield is centrally located to inform a wide audience of what the department knows, he added.

There are a host of things to know, such as where the uranium is, the level of interest in it at this time, what would be involved if a company uses the process, how the state regulates mining companies and what agencies are involved in permitting and other requirements to mine uranium.

"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires a permit, which is in addition to our ISL permit," Murphy said. "A company would need permits from the state health department and likely with any water usage they'd need a permit from the State Water Commission, but it would depend on the amount of water."

The new rules include many facets such as water monitoring.

"Before a company can apply for a mining permit, it needs to monitor the groundwater for a 12-month period monthly," Murphy said. "We establish from that background level what the water chemistry was prior to mining. Then when we're looking at that at end of mining, we can get water quality back to way it was."

With the interest in uranium and its increases in price, the need to address possible uranium mining and new mining was a priority for Murphy and others, he added.

"It's been almost 40 years," Murphy said of mining in the area. "You saw ISL come out in the late 1970s or early 1980s being used in Texas first. The closest uranium mines are in northwest Nebraska and eastern Wyoming, which are ISL facilities. So we thought let's get rules on the books to address this whether or not it's used because it's quite different."

Mining took place north and south of Belfield from 1962-1967, with a processing plant that was located in southern Billings County, he added.

Murphy said uranium rock formations such as Sentinel Butte, Chalky Butte or Square Butte are rich sources of the uranium which moved down into the underlying rocks.

The upcoming public meeting includes a presentation by Murphy, who is discussing where uranium is in western North Dakota, what ISL is and what the new rules for ISL entail. A question-and-answer session follows the presentations.

"Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources, will run the meeting and do an introduction on where things are at with uranium worldwide," Murphy said. "Dave Glatt with the state health department and Jim Deutsch with the PSC will say a few words, but are mostly there for comments and questions."

Director of Water Appropriations Bob Shaver with the State Water Commission also is to talk about the water appropriations process.

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