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YOURS: In-situ mining will foul the waters

I have worked for more than 40 years in the environmental cleanup field for industrial companies and consulting firms on many projects globally where accidental discharges — leaks and spills, etc. — have occurred and resulted in the contamination of groundwater systems.

During my work on these various clean-up projects, pollution control agencies have typically insisted that not enough was known about how and where the ill-fated contamination was moving in the subsurface. Well after well needed to be installed in an effort to try to prove the improvable regarding subsurface fate and transport of contaminants. And it is one thing to clean up an accidental spill or other legacy environmental problems when laws governing the handling of hazardous materials were not as stringent as they are today, but it is quite another to allow a company to inject these materials into the subsurface and thereby purposely create a huge contamination problem.

The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued draft permits to Powertech/Azarga for a proposed in-situ leach (ISL) uranium mine in Custer and Fall River counties. If approved, these permits would allow the company to operate for 10 years.

ISL mining occurs in the subsurface, within groundwater aquifers. In this case, it would occur in the Inyan Kara aquifer and would include the injection of wastewater back into the Minnelusa aquifer. But people are using the water in these aquifers for drinking water and agricultural purposes, etc. So this is a terrible idea.

ISL mining involves the drilling of thousands of wells into the ore deposit where uranium occurs naturally in a solid state. Leaching solution is then pumped into the aquifer where it makes contact with the ore and artificially dissolves the uranium, along with many other heavy metals.

This solution is then theoretically captured and pumped to the surface for further processing. However, after naturally-occurring uranium and other heavy metals are mobilized in this fashion, it is absolutely impossible to guarantee 100 percent capture of this solution, especially given the heterogeneous conditions (different materials/layers, etc.) that exist in this area.

The interconnections make it impossible to predict with certainty how liquids are truly flowing. And this uncertainty occurs not only when the mining operation is active, but it is exacerbated at the end of operations when the mining ceases and the pumps are turned off.

The remainder of these heavy metals, including uranium, that were loosened during the ISL will then continue to flow within the aquifer. And to make matters worse, no such ISL operation has ever been successfully cleaned up.

It is shocking that the EPA is willing to consider issuing such permits. If the shoe was on the other foot and the EPA was responsible for the cleanup rather than in the position of issuing these permits, they would be much more discerning and demanding.

If Powertech/Azarga is allowed to proceed, it is a near certainty that this facility will become a Superfund site and therefore the company should be required to place millions of dollars into a reserve account to pay for an inevitable cleanup.

So this is a terrible idea. Why would we risk our precious groundwater resource for a mining operation that is guaranteed to contaminate these aquifers in exchange for a handful of jobs and large profits made by a foreign corporation?

We should keep our water pure to support our local economy and the sustainable growth that is happening in the Black Hills. Common sense dictates that this type of uranium mining should not be allowed to proceed.

Please attend the EPA hearings on the proposed Powertech/ Azarga ISL uranium mine to be held from 1 to 8 p.m. on May 8 and 9, at the Best Western Ramkota Hotel, 2111 LaCrosse St. in Rapid City.

Richard Bell is the president of Sustainable Environmental Energy Engineering, LLC in Rapid City and chairperson of Black Hills Chapter of Dakota Rural Action.

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