South Dakota's doctors have told us that their research shows the prospect of uranium mining in the southern Black Hills is something to worry about. But on Dakota Midday Monday, a representative of Powertech Uranium Corp., the company that desperately hopes to make money by pumping chemicals into the ground to extract and refine a radioactive element, says to take his word for it that everyone's safe.
South Dakota Public Radio's Karl Gerhke moderated some entertaining back-and-forth Monday on the proposed Powertech mine. Lilias Jarding of Rapid City-based Clean Water Alliance and Powertech Project Manager Mark Hollenbeck, along with several callers from across the state, sparred over the environmental impact of the proposed in situ recovery (or in situ leach, for those looking for a more appropriately sinister name) uranium mine south of Edgemont. Hollenbeck's general philosophy toward the environment—despite his assertions to the contrary—seemed to be "if it's already broke, let's break it worse."
The most heated exchange (it's not every day guests get this close to talking over each other on Gehrke's air) comes at the very end of the 40-minute double segment:
Hollenbeck: I didn’t become a proponent of this thing overnight, but I have spent a tremendous amount of time studying this project, this geology, and believe it is safe for everybody. ...
Jarding: ... and, of course, the research is also very clear that the water has never been returned to its original condition …
Hollenbeck: … and the original condition is a thousand times over what’s usable. That is such a bogus argument when you look at that. This water has so much radium in it that it can never, ever be used for any human consumption, and so if chloride changes, sulfate changes, or uranium changes slightly, that does have no effect on the usability of this water in the future [Nathan Puhl, from on-air interview by Karl Gehrke, "Uranium Mining Debate," Dakota Midday, 2013.11.18, timestamp 35:46].
Two things in Hollenbeck's argument stand out to me as indicators of the fine line he's attempting to walk for his bosses as he tries to convince his neighbors (and former constituents) to ignore environmental concerns.
First, Hollenbeck is careful in this exchange and other points in the conversation to qualify that when he says the water is already "unusable," what he's talking about is exclusively use for "human consumption." If we define human consumption as the only purpose worth worrying about for our aquatic ecosystems, that isn't actually caring about the environment; that's caring about whether we can use the environment for our own benefit.
More troubling, though, is Hollenbeck's overarching thesis that we don't really need to worry about the environmental impact of uranium mining because the aquifers are full of contaminants already. A contaminated aquifer shouldn't be an invitation to just let loose with as many chemicals as we can. Instead, the existing issues should make us that much more attentive to protecting the already-fragile environment from further abuse at the hands of yellowcake profiteers.
Not that Powertech is guaranteed much of a profit even if it manages to leach uranium out of the rock beneath the Hills. The Russians are currently scaling back on their worldwide uranium mining operations, which include the Willow Creek mine in Wyoming's Campbell and Johnson Counties. The president of Uranium One Holding, a Canadian company controlled by Russia's state-owned Rosatom, cited falling prices as the reason for halting some uranium mining operations:
"We cannot discount the dramatic fall in natural uranium prices, as a result of which over 50 percent of global uranium production is currently loss-making," Vadim Zhivov, chairman of Atomredmetzoloto [Rusatom's in-country mining arm] and president of Uranium One Holding, told Reuters in emailed comments on Wednesday.
"Given the unfavourable market environment, we have decided to freeze expansion projects both in Russia and abroad," Zhivov said ["Russia's Rosatom to mothball uranium mine expansion projects," Reuters, 2013.11.13].
Half of global production is operating at a loss. And Powertech's already on the financial ropes to the tune of a $3.6-million Chinese loan. That seems like reason for healthy skepticism about the 100 jobs Hollenbeck keeps talking about.
Put that healthy skepticism together with skepticism about how healthy in situ recovery mining is for an already-ailing aquifer. Add in the indefinite delay from one permit-granting agency, and there might just be enough skepticism around to begin taking Hollenbeck's hot air out of Powertech's sails.