PIERRE, S.D. — A plan to restore some of the state’s permitting authority over a proposed uranium mine was rejected by a South Dakota Senate panel Thursday after lawmakers said they see no need to spend state money duplicating federal regulatory programs.
The Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee voted 7-1 to kill the bill, which was promoted by ranchers and others who fear the mine near Edgemont in southwestern South Dakota will deplete and pollute the underground water supplies that will be used in the mining process.
Committee members said it makes sense to let federal agencies handle the mine permit and some related issues because the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources does not have sufficient staff to handle those duties. However, the state agency does have control over permits that allow the mine to use and discharge water, they said.
“What more can we do?” said Sen. Jason Frerichs, D-Wilmot.
Susan Henderson, who ranches near the proposed mine, said she is afraid the mine will use so much underground water that her wells will go dry. She said all the dams on her 16-square-mile ranch went dry in last summer’s drought, so she needed well water for her cattle.
“If I had not had not had that underground water and been able to use that, I’d have been out of businesses and so would all of my neighbors,” Henderson said.
But Mark Hollenbeck, a rancher and engineer who is project manager for the mine, said he would not be involved in the project if he thought it would take too much water or pollute it.
“I want to make sure it’s safe for my family, my kids and my neighbors,” Hollenbeck said.
Powertech Uranium Corp.’s proposed Dewey-Burdock project, named for two abandoned towns nearby, would cover about 16.5 square miles and produce about 1 million pounds of uranium oxide annually for the next two decades.
Powertech, a Canadian company whose U.S. arm is overseeing the project, plans to use a method known as in-situ recovery, which would pump groundwater fortified with oxygen and carbon dioxide into the underground ore deposits to dissolve the uranium. The water would be pumped back to the surface, where the uranium would be extracted and sold to nuclear power plants.
The defeated bill sought to repeal a law passed by the 2011 Legislature that prevents the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources from duplicating federal regulation of underground injection wells and in-situ mining.
That means the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in charge of deciding whether the project gets a license, which is a mining permit. The NRC has recommended that a license be granted and a final decision could be made by June. The Environmental Protection Agency is considering Powertech’s application for permits related to injecting water underground in the mining process.
However, the state still has control over granting water rights permits that would let the project use underground water for the extraction process and a permit for discharging water.
Dayton Hyde, an author who runs the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary near Hot Springs, said he opposes the mine because it could pollute the Cheyenne River and underground water supplies used to support the ranch’s 500 horses and 100 cattle.
“Without that water we just can’t exist,” Hyde said.
But Hollenbeck, the mine project manager, said state officials will regulate the water use that worries mine opponents.
Hollenbeck said the NRC needs to handle the mine license because state agencies do not have the expertise or staff to do so.
State Environment Secretary Steve Pirner did not testify for or against the bill. But in response to committee questions, he said his agency would need additional money and staff to handle the regulatory duties now done by the NRC and EPA.