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EPA in the Pocket of Uranium Extraction Corporation
~ Mary Burrows
“When you know who you are, when your mission
is clear, and you burn with the inner fire of
unbreakable will: no cold can touch your heart,
no deluge can dampen your purpose. You know
that you are alive!”--Chief Seattle, Duwamish
On Saturday, October 5, 2019, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held yet another public comment hearing at the Mueller Civic Center in Hot Springs, South Dakota.
At issue was the permitting of Canadian/Chinese company, Powertech/Azarga, so the corporation can operate an in-situ uranium extraction mine in southwestern South Dakota known as Dewey-Burdock, along with four “reclamation” wells into which would be pumped water from which yellowcake uranium had been extracted. Powertech Uranium Corporation is listed as licensee with Azarga listed as owner. The company owns surface and mineral rights to over 12,000 acres in an area in far west Fall River and Custer counties, quite near to the Wyoming border.
[The author suggests reading the material at the Azarga web site (link below) with regard to permits and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) shenanigans when it comes to Native American protestations, specifically the Oglala Sioux Tribe (OST), to the continued and relentless progress toward permitting that would allow Azarga to proceed with its mine. Also watch the excellently spun video at the site, which explains the in-situ process and offers pie-in-the-sky explanations about reclaimed water.]
In attendance and commenting at the hearing were Native Americans, ranchers, tax payers, activists, scientists, and victims of radiation poisoning. Some 60-70 intervenors were scheduled to speak. There was also a representative of Powertech in the audience, who refused to give his name when called out.
Uranium was first discovered in the Dewey-Burdock area in 1952. Initially, it was found at the surface, but later exploration revealed deeper deposits. In the 1960s, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) purchased land in southwestern South Dakota, and Silver King Mining Corporation began extracting the mineral. Due to the decline of uranium prices, the sites were abandoned in the mid-1980s, leaving behind seven open pits, waste rock piles, underground workings, two open tunnels, and over 800 unplugged bore holes. According to EPA in 2014, the area was primarily used for cattle grazing.
Nikki Pipe on Head: “The uranium companies came and mined and drilled and left a mess for South Dakota to clean up.” Pipe on Head is the daughter of former United States Senator James Abourezk, whose signature legislation is the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978. She is married to Doyle, a descendant of Cheyenne Chief Big Foot, a victim of the Wounded Knee Massacre.
In 2012, the Institute of Range and the American Mustang (IRAM), owner of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary that protects an ancient Lakota sundance site at the southern end of the limestone ridge and above where the Cheyenne River runs in four directions, requested a preliminary assessment (PA) of the abandoned mining operations by EPA. IRAM, along with Sanctuary owner Dayton Hyde, was concerned that releases from mines were impacting the land and water and would jeopardize public health and the environment. IRAM cited the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as the Superfund law. At that time, EPA determined that a PA was needed. The PA is designed to distinguish between sites that pose little or no threat to human health and the environment, and sites that may pose a threat and require further investigation.
Based on the data collected by Powertech about the Dewey-Burdock site, EPA determined that further sampling was needed to determine the impact such in-situ mining would have on sensitive environments. As of January 2019, Azarga had received two necessary permits, with two still needed, without adequate consultation with members of the OST or any cultural studies involving indigenous sacred sites, and without any clean-up of existing mine sites.
Donald Matt, with the United States Geological Survey since 1986, commented that water tables in the area have declined 25 feet due to uncontrolled flowing wells. He said that geologists are concerned about “holes” in the sandstones, which underlie the mining area. Pumping waste water into the rock layers, essentially “fracking,” creates fissures in the rock. Powertech and Azarga cannot prove that they can purify waste water to adequate standards. He said such waste can generate radiation for 10,000 years.
Rancher and activist Marvin Kemmerer told EPA and attendees that his grandfather had homesteaded on the Black Hills Piedmont in 1880, near where Ellsworth Air Force Base currently is. He has drilled a well 2260 feet into the Inyan Kara aquifer (into which Azarga intends to inject water “reclaimed” from their extraction process) to assist with calving and other ranching operations. Kemmerer, whose name means “caretaker” in German, wondered what effect increased pressure on the Inyan Kara would have on the “holes at Edgemont,” many miles to his south and west. He commented that droughts are occuring more often and for more extended periods. He urged EPA to “stand for the environment,” and reminded them of their mandate to preserve water and other natural resources.
“The Lakota have prior rights; we are responsible [stewards], and you people need to speak for us honestly,” Kemmerer told EPA.
EPA's preliminary assessment in 2014 found that “surface soils near the on-site waste piles contain levels of radionuclides above health-based standards and are three times higher than background levels (author's emphasis). Also, water samples from the impoundments contained radionuclides, to include uranium, RA-226 (radium-226), Th-230 (thorium-230), and Pb-210 (lead-210).” EPA also found that surface soil and air samples collected at the uranium mines have found elevated levels of radionuclides, and “these pathways may pose a risk to nearby residents and workers.” Also noted: two domestic wells near the site contain levels of radium-226 that exceed the drinking water standard. One of the wells also has uranium levels that exceed that standard. Analyses of surface water in Pass Creek, Beaver Creek, and Cheyenne River also found radionuclides. Based on these findings, EPA planned to begin a site investigation in 2015. Yet, on April 27, 2016, The Rapid City Journal published a story that stated “no cleanup is needed” at abandoned mining sites. (See link below.)
According to a survey done by Seagull Environmental Technologies, Inc., of Wheat Ridge, Colorado, and published September 24, 2014, groundwaters in major and minor aquifers in the Southern Hills flow from northeast to southwest, and regionally flow radially outward from the Black Hills to the surrounding plains (Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 2012). Surface waters from abandoned sites drain into Pass Creek, Beaver Creek, and Cheyenne River. Seagull found that “Mining waste remains in abundance at the Site, and is suspected to be a source of radionuclide contamination to nearby streams and groundwater.”
The Cheyenne flows into the Missouri, which flows into the Mississippi and on down to the Gulf of Mexico. The Missouri River influences about 500,000 square miles of the Great Plains until it enters the Mississippi above St. Louis, Missouri.
Local resident and water activist Sarah Peterson urged no further permits for Azarga. Two have already been issued, with no cultural studies and no notification of permitting, or conversations with local tribes. Azarga “has no money available for cultural studies. They did not fill the bore holes and have no money to do so.” There are no crystalline layers between the sandstone formations to prevent seepage and leakage between aquifers. Southwest South Dakota is described as a sacrifice area and human beings as collaterol damage. “The only wells to indicate toxins will be OUR wells,” she said. “Azarga is banking on the current government chaos,” Peterson said, “to get something for nothing.”
“Protect us,” she told EPA, “and not the corporations.”
Lindsey McLean, a biochemist, proclaimed overwhelming opposition to Dewey-Burdock. Science has been ignored. The goal of Azarga is to turn this site into a toxic waste dump, with zero oversight. The EPA justified “that no one lives there.” Downstream wells will be lost to contamination and “the people are just S-O-L.”
Mary Helen Pederson began by quoting Chief Seattle: “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”
“How DARE you come in here and pollute our water?” she demanded. “We are NOT collaterol damage! We are NOT going away! We will fight you to the death!”
Frank James of Dakota Rural Action urged, “Deny permits full stop!” He spoke of a friend who ranches 40 miles east of the Missouri River, whose well water is sourced from the Black Hills. One well even produces warm water.
In 2013, Carol McLelland moved to the Black Hills from Illinois, where she raised horses, because of the clean air, pure water, and local environment. “Even horses know clean water,” she said. “They will bathe in the Cheyenne River, but they won't drink it.” She commented that fishing is no longer allowed “in the Cheyenne under the bridge on Highway 44” (between Rapid City and Scenic, South Dakota). It is “all about greed, and we need to speak up!”
American Indian Movement (AIM) member Milo Yellow Hair commented that “humans are reflective of a healthy environment: pure water, pure air, pure thoughts.” The United States is home, not a commodity. Natives “see the soul and spirit of the land.” He urged EPA to do away with permits.
Dr. Andy Johnson, from Spearfish, South Dakota, is a physics educator with radiation literacy. “The health of the ecosystem is vital!” The EPA is violating federal law with regard to treaties and tribal sovereignty. The water is already being used by many, and aquifers will be damaged. “Radiation exposure introduces mutations that take from 20 to 40 generations to clear from a gene pool,” he advised.
A professional engineer, Rick Vale, told EPA that the draft permit is wrong and that EPA has abdicated their duty. “Uranium will form a plume that will migrate downgradient and flow south and east to Hot Springs, making people and animals sick.”
Diane Newham: “Radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States...Uranium mining is only good for those making money: the corporations!”
Foxie One Feather, of Lower Brule exclaimed, “We all know that what is happening here is toxic! The Black Hills are sacred, period! Leave it (sic) alone!!”
Donald J. Hotz was an educator of handicapped people in Edgemont, South Dakota. The apartment he rented in town was surrounded by low-level radiation in the form of uranium tailings from abandoned Silver King mines. “It wrecked my life!” After six months of living there, he became ill with allergies and lung problems. After two years, he moved from Edgemont, and his health improved.
Tatiana Novikova is an immigrant to the United States from Belarus and an environmental victim, in that she is a cancer survivor of the Chernobyl meltdown. Tatiana was exposed to low-level radiation and filed three cases against her former government and won them. “I see a dictatorship right here! This government negects its duties and breaks its own laws!” Tatiana defends the Black Hills as her new home.
Wounded Knee, South Dakota, resident Leola One Feather is a “uranium poisoning victim.” Twenty-six elements, including borium, cadmium, and aluminum have been found in her blood. Twenty-two wells on the Pine Ridge Reservation are contaminated with heavy metals. She is the grandmother of a baby boy who weighed one pound, nine ounces when he was born at the Indian Health Service (IHS) hospital on the reservation. She related that 68 babies have been born by C-section at IHS because their placentas “had become dead! Cows are better taken care of than our children!”
Andrew Iron Shell from Thunder Valley/Kyle, South Dakota, was accompanied by his two granddaughters. As Americans, “we are going to show up” at mines and pipelines, “regardless of the military!” He spoke of the First Amendment and protection of sacred sites. Long-standing treaties are sacred today. “We respect the rule of law, but you (EPA) have broken your own laws in favor of foreign companies.”
U.S. Navy veteran Sylvia Lambert wants corporations to “prove” their requests. Water scarcity in this area is proven. She wants independent testing of surface and groundwater, and bonds commenserate with risk. “These corporations do not have to pay for the water they use.” Mining companies should be compelled to honor sacred treaties.
The major fear of many who spoke is that Azarga intends to use Dewey-Burdock reclamation wells as toxic waste dumps for polluted refuse from throughout the world, with no oversight by EPA.
Cheyenne River Sioux tribal member Jean Roche said it would be a “good faith gesture to open conversations with Native people. We have respect for the Earth and water. The water has been contaminated since the first spill. We want clean water for our succeeding generations.”
“Treaty law is the supreme law of the land! You are living on stolen land!” Theresa Black Elk, Lakota.
Medicinal herbalist Dara Red Hawk learned her craft from relatives. “If the pollution continues, our plants will be sick also.” Big Pharma learns from Native herbal wisdom, but adds to it to obtain patents. “Seven states downstream of the Cheyenne rely on our aquifer.”
Regina Brave is a Lakota woman from Oglala, South Dakota. Her great-grandfather was a signatory to the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which was enacted into law on February 16, 1869, and almost immediately violated by the U.S. government. “All rivers from the eastern shore of the Missouri River to (the eastern slope of) the Big Horn Mountains (Wyoming) are on treaty lands.” Chief Red Cloud wanted half of the gold in the Black Hills to be placed in trust for the Seventh Generations. This is “our land!!” All people in treaty lands are affected. The Oglala aquifer affects eight states.
“Igloo, South Dakota, was once known as the leukemia capital of the world,” she said. “Workers at Igloo began getting cancers and having miscarriages. The water and the people were poisoned.”
[Igloo was once an ordnance depot for the government. Munitions were stored in igloo-like structures that still stand to this day. A company unknown to me recently tried to sell the igloos as glorified bomb-shelter homes for $25,000. As far as I know, that endeavor was unsuccessful. MB]
Brave is planning to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Government and its various agencies, charging them with “treason for working with a foreign country and for violating our treaties. We are a sovereign nation!”
(In a private conversation, Brave told the author that her son is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm. He and others were given “horse pills” to protect them from SCUD missles and were told not to have children for at least five years.)
Tyrell Iron Shell, whose Native name means “Defends the Water,” is from the same band of Lakotas as Crazy Horse. “It is preposterous that we are standing here debating this issue! The future is on the line, and that is not taken into consideration by the government. We inherited this land from our ancestors. You are the guests here; we are the hosts.”
“Respect us, or expect us!” Iron Shell promised.
Cheryl Angel, a Sicangu Lakota from Rosebud reservation, said she doesn't “have the heart to give up. What I have is you—every one of you who knows right from wrong.”
“It is going to come down to actions to protect ourselves,” she said. “We have to start acting like community members to protect ourselves.” To EPA, she said, “Despite our lack of faith, we hope you do right!”
Hot Springs native and marine ecologist, Dr. Ben Sharp, told Azarga, “We don't want you here, and we are not going to look the other way...Atrocities are perpetuated by systems of politicians and bankers.” The prevailing “science is a joke.”
Activist Lilias Jarding holds a PhD in Environmental Science. She said that treaties must be protected, and that consultations with the tribes should come first. “The uncertainty of the water situation in the Black Hills means no mining!” The Cheyenne is already contiminated. “Keep uranium in the ground!”
Jarding then quoted from one of her own poems:
“The Black Hills are at my back to protect me
as here I make my stand!”
Chief Dan George, Tsleil-Waututh (1899-1981):
“Have I done all to keep the air fresh?
Have I cared enough about the water?
Have I left the eagle to soar in freedom?
Have I done everything I could to earn my grandchild's fondness?”
Public comment on this permit request could be submitted to EPA until December 9, 2019.
Many people commented but it is impossible to include all comments in this article. I also apologize for any names I may not have gotten right, re spelling...Only EPA had that information. No one spoke up in favor of this environmental debacle. MB
Seagull Environmental Report
No Cleanup Required-EPA
The EPA web page from which I extracted the information about radionuclides
was either moved or removed after I read it.
The Missouri River
Uranium Poisoning Navajo Women and Babies
Editor's Note: Article content is the author's work independent of WNT endorsement.