NRC rules OST must be consulted
WASHINGTON –– In a decision announced during the last hours before Christmas holidays, Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners ruled that NRC staff must heed the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s demand for further consultation on historic sites in order to validate a license for proposed uranium mining and milling operation in the southern Black Hills of South Dakota.
The ruling on Dec. 23 was the most recent federal action in the tribe’s seven-year fight to prevent the first proposed solution mining in the state. The decision applies to a 10,580-acre wellfield project at the Dewey Burdock property 50 miles from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the adjoining counties of Custer and Fall River.
Responding to appeals from the tribe and other parties in the administrative case, the commissioners backed a contested 2015 Atomic Safety and Labor Board position that “consultation with the tribe had been insufficient to comply with the staff’s additional obligations under the National Historic Preservation Act.
Protection Act’s hard-look requirement regarding cultural resources,” the board had said, and commissioners agreed.
The ruling means that NRC staff must go back to the drawing board and undertake proper, formal consultation with the Oglala Sioux Tribe to identify and protect cultural resources. According to the laws, the consultation must include tribal elders and officials in the process.
The commission also said that the mining company must properly plug thousands of open boreholes that resulted from past mining, if it really wants to proceed. Otherwise, left open during any further mining, the holes would contribute to a high risk of water contamination outside the mining area.
According to Hannan La- Garry, an expert witness in the case, approximately 7,500 old boreholes punctuate the proposed mine site, and they can conduct water to unintended places.
“I’m glad to see that the commissioners required further protection of tribal interests and our water.” said Black Hills Clean Water Alliance environmental policy expert Lilias Jarding.
The mining company, Canada-based Azarga Uranium Corp. (formerly Powertech
Uranium Corp.), would require exclusive rights indefinitely to 9,000 gallons per minute of Inyan Kara and Madison Aquifer water, causing a significant decline in the level of the water table that provides municipal and other domestic supplies all around the Black Hills.
“I'm heartened to see the NRC is holding firm on the requirement that the company plug the 7,500 old boreholes,” said Gena Parkhurst, chair of the Black Hills Chapter of the statewide grassroots non-profit Dakota Rural Action.
“Based on expert opinion, the proposed uranium mine in the area of the Fall River- Custer County border could seriously threaten our precious water supplies. There could be both contamination and depletion of our aquifers."
The commission’s ruling stopped short of revoking the contested license until consultation is complete, although one of the five commissioners wrote a dissenting opinion that sided with the tribe’s request to suspend it.
Sarah Peterson, a Fall River County resident and participant in the ad hoc group It’s All About the Water, said she shared the dissenting opinion. “I agree wholeheartedly with the commissioner who stated Powertech-Azarga's license should be suspended until the Oglala Lakota tribal issues are resolved and the 7,500 boreholes are properly plugged.
“We need full disclosure and transparency from Powertech Azarga in their process of resolving these two issues,” she said.
Coinciding with the commission decision but in a separate case, federal prosecutors charged the leadership of Azarga’s largest shareholder, Platinum Partners, with fraud in a massive $1-billion alleged scheme to convince investors the company had no serious financial problems.
Azarga President Blake Steele told investors the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decision “helps provide additional clarity on the path forward to resolve the outstanding contentions,” as the tribe’s case continues.
If Azarga, the NRC staff, the tribe or other local interveners seek to appeal the commission’s decision, the next venue of recourse would be the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia or the Ninth Circuit Court.
(Contact Talli Nauman, Health and Environment Editor, at email@example.com)