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Uranium and our precious water


Travis Dewes

Fall River County has seen environmental threats to its water, land, and people before. The Edgemont Uranium Mill was constructed in 1956 and processed 250 tons of ore a day, then increased production within a year to 500 tons a day. In 1961 a home contractor used three loads of uranium tailings to create a foundation for a home which would go on to house a child for two and a half years until he was five. The radiation levels in that house were four times the maximum exposure allowed for uranium miners. They were exposed for 8 hours a day and likely having a day off during a week.
In 1971 a team from the EPA was dispersed throughout the county to investigate concentrations of radiation, and they found 44 sites of high radiation in the town of Edgemont alone. The report “must have fallen through the cracks” according to John Giedt, an employee of the EPA’s Denver office, and further saying “We made it available to the A.E.C. (Atomic Energy Commission) and they chose to do nothing about it.”
The Edgemont Uranium Mill put an end to operations after the U.S. Government ceased purchasing uranium in 1972. But 7 years after the harvest of uranium was finished, another study was done on radioactivity in Fall River County. Compounding on the previous study, this new study located 16 more hotspots in Edgemont alone including the hospital and school, and high amounts of radioactivity in places as far away as Dudley and Hot Springs.
Growing up in Edgemont at the time meant uranium tailings were a part of daily life as they could be seen throughout town. Children playing on the tailings outside of school grounds, some going home with burning eyes.
Eugenia Chord was an owner of a uranium claim and she is quoted saying “It’s a bunch of hooey” because “There’s no epidemic of cancer in Edgemont. Why, it’s just like finding gold. It’s money in your pocket”. Eugenia Chord kept a piece of uranium ore in her dresser “where it’s safe”.
There was a dramatic rise in cancer rates within Edgemont at the time which prompted investigation into radiation levels.
Keith Anderson, city council president at the time, is quoted saying “Many of us in Edgemont endorse the development of mining and milling in our community. Before we are labeled as a selfish, greedy mob, stop to consider why we support this development.”
The reality of the situation is that it is to understand why industries such as uranium mining are supported in local communities, state governments, and national governments… money and livelihood. Fall River County has always been attracted to industries that have the potential to boom and bust because of its rural location. It began with the railroad, and then Igloo, SD, then the Uranium Mill.
1984 brought talk of a low-level nuclear waste dump in Fall River County which would be operated by Chem-Nuclear of South Carolina. Hundreds of red t-shirts and pins were sold in support of the dump that read “Why not Edgemont?” The dump would have dealt with a third of the entire nation’s low-level nuclear waste. But despite the large numbers of support, there were locals who opposed the dump. Howard Henderson, a local rancher, said “Out here, all we’ve got is what little water we’ve got, if we lose that, we haven’t got anything.”
Honeywell Corporation purchased 6,200 acres of Hell Canyon in Fall River County to test uranium tipped munitions rounds in 1987. But a local group of resistors named the C.I.A. (Cowboy and Indian Alliance) protested for nearly half of a year and inhabited the canyon briefly because it was a site for local Native American religious practices, it enshrined Native American petroglyphs, housed numerous types of wild game, and bordered several large cattle ranches. Honeywell abandoned the munitions facility in Hell Canyon in October of 1987 due to the resistance. The canyon is now the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary.
The Hell Canyon incident was short, valiant and effective, but not unprecedented.
The Black Hills Alliance had been fighting for land rights for nearly two decades. Notably in 1980 while filing a law suit requesting 11 billion dollars in damage and restoration to the Native Americans in accordance with the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. The Black Hills Alliance also organized a ‘Survival Gathering’ to spur conversation about how to prevent energy corporations from having a destructive handle in the Black Hills. The gathering took place within a mile of Ellsworth Air Force Base and had a reported 8,000 attendants. A New York Times article described the gathering as “featuring old left, new left, Indians, earnest academics, the straightest of straight farmers and ranchers (slightly bemused of finding themselves fallen in with longhairs)” and that “most of the talk was about land and life and their interconnection – those who make their living from the land, like the farmers and ranchers; those who hold it sacred, as do the Indians; those who love its beauty, as do the environmentalists.”
Marvin Kammerer, a local rancher, said “What my grandfather told my father was: ‘Don’t sell the land’. I feel the same way the Indians do; I don’t own the land, it owns me, because my father and grandfather are buried there” and when asked about energy development he said “these corporations aren’t accepting the responsibility for what they are doing, for all that destructive potential that innocent people have to live with.”
In August of 1987 Cindy Reed, a rancher, is quoted saying “This is not Indian versus white. It’s a land-based ethic versus a profit-oriented motive. This is a beautiful place. There’s no reason to begin to ruin it.”
There is a public comment hearing in Hot Springs for a proposed uranium mine in the South West Black Hills on Saturday, October 5th, 2019. This conversation will have arguments that are still echoing from the near past in Fall River County and the Black Hills. It is a fact that all of the above history should be taken into meditative account by legislators, corporations, and activists before approaching such an issue.

(Contact Travis Dewes at travisldewes@gmail.com)

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