PIERRE, S.D. — A virtual status report on a uranium mining project in the southern Black Hills briefly grew testy on Wednesday, May 5, when an attorney representing water rights advocates pressed a state board against allowing a permitting process to go forward for over a dozen wellfields in the Dewey-Burdock formation.
"It's the cart before the horse," said Bruce Ellison, an attorney representing Clean Water Alliance. "Let's let the feds do it first, before we [use up] our resources to see what they've done."
South Dakota Water Management Board Chairman James Hutmacher pushed back, saying Powertech, the potential uranium mining company, which wants to use a controversial mining technique to reach uranium pockets, had a right to come before the board, at one point interrupting Ellison, who was on a remote line, to get a word in.
"Mr. Ellison, stop for a minute," said Hutmacher, a Democratic member of the bipartisan state board. "The whole thing is here, Powertech has the right to file a motion with the board, and so do you."
At odds, say critics, was whether to recommence the permitting process at the state level for a long-debated uranium project in the southern Black Hills.
Last November, Powertech received underground injection permits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — approval they'd been seeking since 2013 to mine for uranium the Dewey-Burdock formation, which is 13 miles northwest of Edgemont, S.D., nestled in the corner of the state near the Wyoming border,
But in late December, the Oglala Sioux Tribe — whose western border comes within 50 miles of the uranium site and has important historic roots in the Black Hills — filed an appeal with the EPA.
EPA spokesperson Valois Robinson confirmed with Forum News Service on Wednesday Oglala Sioux Tribe appeal, saying the tribe's legal action at least temporarily blocked the permits, "thereby staying their effectiveness," and the permits are now pending "final agency action."
Opponents maintain the uranium mines would require major water usage, as much or more than the entire city of Rapid City, and the appeal filed by attorneys for Oglala Sioux Tribe invoked various federal protections, including the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Officials with Powertech, however, have argued the 12,000-acre site could produce 14.3 million pounds of uranium over a decade-and-a-half of production. Uranium, supporters say, powers nuclear energy, which among other attributes has low emissions. Recently, the Biden administration floated the possibility of subsidizing nuclear power to hit climate goals.
Nevertheless, the project has drawn opponents, including the state chapter of the Sierra Club, who object to the in situ mining technique, which relies heavily on water.
Confusion emerged on Wednesday's meeting of the state board over whether intervenors could voice opposition or not. During the board's public comment portion, Gena Parkhurst stood to oppose the permitting.
"Powertech doesn't have all the permits it needs in order to proceed with the state hearing process," Parkhurst said.
But during the status update, Powertech attorney Matt Naasz told the board that the Canadian company had received "permits" and "assurances" from federal agencies.
"We intend to fully proceed," Naasz said.
Following the report, and a couple of procedural questions from the water management board, Ellison interjected a criticism of the process.
"Are only Mr. Naasz's interests of concern?" Ellison asked. "I don't say that facetiously because that's what it sounds like."
A staff member responded, saying Powertech was "entitled" to file "whatever notice they want.."
"You'll have ... time to be heard," said the staffer.
Uranium was discovered in and around Edgemont in the early 1950s. Since the boom ended in the 1970s, the town's population has been cut in half.