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Oglala Sioux Tribe files for court to revoke Black Hills uranium mining license



WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a June 27 filing, the Oglala Sioux Tribe requested that a federal court here revoke the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) license for mining uranium at the Dewey- Burdock site, which is located at the headwaters of the Cheyenne River 50 miles upstream from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The filing is an opening brief in the tribal government’s February lawsuit to stop foreign investors in Azarga Uranium Corp. from obtaining permissions to mine radioactive materials in the underground water tables of the Black Hills, which are part of unceded Lakota Territory according to the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty.

The tribe filed the suit on the heels of its administrative complaints, in which the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board held that the NRC permit for the corporation could remain in place and effective, despite staff failure to comply with National Environmental Protection Act requirements to conduct a competent cultural resources survey and violations of the National Historic Preservation Act’s mandate for government-to-government consultation.

“Throughout the administrative process, the tribe’s primary concerns have consistently been the lack of compliance” with these laws and NRC regulations, as well as “the lack of information necessary to determine the hydrogeology and geochemistry of the site and therefore protect groundwater from mining contamination,” said the tribe’s lawyer Jeffrey C. Parsons, of Western Mining Action Project.

The corporation proposes to mine directly from the local aquifers using in situ leaching, or ISL, a process that involves injecting oxidized mining fluid into an aquifer containing uranium deposits. The mining fluid is pumped under pressure through the ore zone, and the uranium and other heavy metals dissolve into the aquifer.

The metal-bearing groundwater is then pumped back to the surface, where the uranium is separated out, processed into “yellow-cake,” and shipped to other facilities to be enriched for use as nuclear reactor fuel. After the water is polluted, it is treated and injected into another aquifer or released on the surface.

“The long-term track record of ISL mine sites in the United States is replete with examples of failure to accurately predict groundwater dynamics, especially with respect to prevention of horizontal or vertical leakage, (called excursions) and the inability to restore ground water to pre-mining conditions, as required,” Parsons wrote in the brief.

“These impacts have occurred despite the repeated assurances from prospective mine operators that ISL mining is a safe and even benign activity. The recent factual record demonstrates that these projects are not benign, and that grounds for serious concerns exist regarding proper regulation of ISL mining.”

The U.S. Geological Survey has confirmed that “no remediation of an ISR operation in the United States has successfully returned the aquifer to baseline conditions.” ISR stands for in situ recovery, another name for in situ leaching. The USGS goes on to state, “Often at the end of monitoring, contaminants continue to increase.”

Of further concern, according to Parsons, the NRC staff routinely allows for reductions in ground water standards away from baseline water quality. “Thus, all the available evidence shows that all NRC-regulated ISL mining has resulted in degradation of ground water quality over the long term,” his brief states. “The question then becomes one of how much ground water degradation the NRC will allow, and how far the resulting contamination will spread.”

The U.S. EPA has expressed substantial concerns about the ISL process in the West. Among the primary concerns raised are the frequent relaxation of groundwater restoration standards and a lack of sufficient discussion of the causes of groundwater contamination outside the designated mining area at ISL sites.

“The Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement prepared for the Dewey- Burdock project held the opportunity for NRC staff to address these long-standing problems. However, as discussed herein, the agency failed to do so,” the brief states.

“The agency dispensed with the critically important scoping exercise, neglected to analyze impacts from the creation, transportation and disposal of radioactive wastes, deferred the collection of defensible baseline data and demonstrations of the ability to contain mining contamination …, and failed to provide the required detail for environmental impact mitigation,” the brief claims.

For example, the impact statement designates the White Mesa Uranium Mill near the White Mesa Ute Community and Bears Ears National Monument in Utah as the site for disposal of more than 300 cubic yards of radioactive wastes that would be generated annually at the proposed Black Hills facility near Edgemont, South Dakota, and at other facilities nearby.

However, the White Mesa Mill is not licensed to receive or dispose of Azarga Uranium Corp.’s radioactive wastes. The Dewey-Burdock license does not authorize the company to dispose of this waste at White mesa and no NRC or EPA document addresses the cumulative impact or alternatives to using the White Mesa Mill as the disposal facility for the radioactive wastes, according to the filing.

The impact statement “fails to provide a meaningful review of foreseeable impacts of the wastes by merely stating that permanent disposal will occur in conformance with applicable laws,” it notes.

Collaborating with Parsons in the legal charge on behalf of the Oglala Sioux Tribe is Travis Stills of Energy Conservation Law.

Azarga Uranium Corp. is scheduled to file its brief in response by July 27.

(Contact Talli Nauman at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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