The Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board holds its public comment session on Powertech/Azarga's in-situ recovery uranium mine permit today in Hot Springs. The ASLB panel then rolls up Highway 79 to hold a three-day evidentiary hearing at the Alex Johnson in Rapid City.

Powertech on the porch: (L-R) CEO Dick Clement, lobbyist Larry Mann, project manager Mark Hollenbeck, at Hollenbeck's ranch north of Edgemont, SD, 2014.08.17

Powertech on the porch: (L-R) CEO Dick Clement, lobbyist Larry Mann, project manager Mark Hollenbeck, at Hollenbeck's ranch north of Edgemont, SD, 2014.08.17

I've posted quite a bit on Powertech/Azarga's plans to mine uranium in Fall River and Custer counties. Yesterday I went to Edgemont and talked with Powertech CEO Dick Clement, Powertech's South Dakota project manager Mark Hollenbeck, and Powertech lobbyist Larry Mann. We talked on Hollenbeck's front porch and out on the dusty roads northwest of Edgemont around the Dewey-Burdock project site. Here's what I learned, from Powertech's perspective:

2011 Senate Bill 158

In 2011, the South Dakota Legislature passed Senate Bill 158, which I have written stripped South Dakota of its authority to regulate in-situ leach uranium mining, as a favor to TransCanada. Here's the text of the bill:

The legal force and effect of the underground injection control Class III rules promulgated under subdivision 34A-2-93(15) are tolled until the department obtains primary enforcement authority for underground injection control Class III wells from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The in situ leach mining rules promulgated under subdivision 45-6B-81(10) as they relate to uranium are tolled until the department obtains agreement state status from the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission [2011 SB 158].

Larry Mann tells me I got 2011 SB 158 mostly wrong. South Dakota did indeed write rules to regulate in-situ leach uranium mining, and SB 158 did indeed annul those rules. However, those rules were never in effect.

Powertech actually wishes those rules were in effect. Mann says that Powertech would rather deal with state officials than the federal bureaucracy. The Environmental Protection Agency has authority over five classes of water injection issues. The EPA allows states to assume that authority if they write and enforce sufficiently rigorous rules. South Dakota's Department of Environment and Natural Resources prepared such rules for the two classes of water injection relevant to Powertech's uranium operations. However, says Mann, the EPA rejected the DENR's proposed rules, saying that DENR had to take on all five classes. South Dakota thus never had the authority to regulate the issues in question.

2011 SB 158 thus did not make any practical oversight disappear. It clarified that South Dakota's rules had no power. It didn't repeal the rules; it "tolled" them, leaving them on the books awaiting a change of heart from the EPA. But even if the EPA woke up tomorrow and said, "O.K., South Dakota, take over, regulate in-situ leach uranium mining water issues," Powertech would not have an additional hoop through which to jump. On the water injection issues, it deals either with the EPA or DENR, not both.

2011 SB 158 did Powertech one favor. Even though the EPA hadn't granted South Dakota's rules primacy, DENR still wanted Powertech to submit a water-injection application to Pierre. Mann says the federal application was a ten-foot stack of three-ring binders. The state application would have been of similar heft, but DENR wanted a different format, meaning Powertech couldn't just copy its federal app. Mann estimates that preparing that pro forma state app would have cost tens of thousands of dollars. So by clarifying the rules, 2011 SB 158 did leave a little extra money in Powertech's pockets.

Terminology

Reading about Powertech's plans, you'll see the terms in-situ leach mining and in-situ recovery. CEO Clement says Powertech prefers the latter. Leach carries negative connotations associated with the use of cyanide and other caustic chemicals in gold mining and other mineral extraction operations. Clement says recovery is both less negative and more accurate, since Powertech's mining process uses oxygenated, neutral-pH pipe water with baking soda.

We did not discuss the auditory association with leeches, but if I were in a marketing meeting, I'd go there and advocate for ISR over ISL.

Taxes and Trucks

Mann says Powertech will contribute to state and county coffers. Severance tax will provide approximately $2 million to the state, $1 million to Fall River County, and $1 million to Custer County each year. The counties will also receive road maintenance fees to help with the wear and tear on the gravel roads around the mine site between the South Dewey Road and the Cheyenne River northwest of Edgemont.

How many trucks will be dusting up that area? Clement says each uranium truck will carry 50,000 pounds of uranium in yellowcake form. Powertech's permit allows a maximum of one million pounds per year. That's twenty trucks—one or two a month—hauling out uranium. Clement anticipates one or two heavy supply trucks coming in each week.

Worst-Case Scenario

Trucks do tip. Stuff falls out of trucks. What happens if a Powertech truck loses its load and spills urnaium?

Not much, say Clement and Hollenbeck. They envision a worst-case scenario of a train hitting a truck, busting containers, and dispersing the uranium powder in the air. (If that's the worst they can imagine, I find their imagination lacking. How about terrorists with rocket-propelled grenades? How about Timothy McVeigh Jr. going kamikaze with a truckload of fertilizer and an impact detonator?) The greatest danger from such a release is not the radiation. Uranium emits alpha particles—big, fat, slow helium nuclei that can't even penetrate human skin. If I run out to a Powertech train wreck and start scooping up yellowcake with my hands, I don't tingle, glow, or get nuked, says Hollenbeck.

What I don't want to do is eat or inhale uranium. Hollenbeck says the real danger from uranium is heavy-metal poisoning, just like one would get from ingesting lead. Workers cleaning up a yellowcake spill would need respirators and other safety gear, but a Powertech truck-train collision would not be a nuclear nightmare.

Water

Powertech is applying to draw 8,000 gallons of water a minute from the Madison aquifer. Hollenbeck compares that to the 3,500 gallons per minute that Evans Plunge in Hot Springs is permitted to use for recreation.

But as Hollenbeck explains it, that 8,000 gallons per minute is draw, not consumption. It's not like the aquifer is a tank from which Powertech is removing wwater and then placing that water in an entirely separate tank. Powertech's mine, the ground into which it is injecting water to retrieve uranium, is part of the aquifer. Hollenbeck compares the ISL operation to a recirculation pump in a swimming pool: sure, it moves a lot of water, but it is mostly the same water, day in, day out. Hollenbeck estimates that out of 8,000 gallons pulled from the aquifer, 7,920 goes back in.

But that water goes back in with a different chemical composition, right? Whether they reinject wastewater or disperse it on fields, there are minerals in the water that can affect plant and animal life. Hollenbeck says one of the biggest risks is simple salt, sodium chloride. Powertech will have to take steps to remove vanadium and radium from the water it releases. Radium, a natural by-product of the radioactive decay of uranium, is particularly troublesome. Drink water with uranium in it, and your body will flush it out reasonably well, though it will be hard on your kidneys. Drink water with radium in it, and your body says, "Yum, yum!" The human body treats radium like calcium, absorbing it into the bones and replacing the calcium, which you do not want.

However, Hollenbeck says the local water already has high radium levels, and the data from other ISR operations that he's looked at show lower radium levels post-mining.

Sandstone on Hollenbeck ranch, looking south toward Edgemont, 2014.08.17

Sandstone on Hollenbeck ranch, looking south toward Edgemont, 2014.08.17

But suppose Powertech is lying to us. Suppose Hollenbeck, Clement, and Mann leave all sorts of nasty by-products in the mine's wastewater and pee on top of it for good measure. Hollenbeck reminds us that we're talking about an underground aquifer, not a lake or a river. The water of the Madison aquifer moves through sandstone at seven feet per year. If the water is reinjected in the ground, and if the contaminants in it are able to squeeze through the porous sandstone along with the water molecules, contaminants would move one mile in 750 years.

Boreholes, Geology, and ISR Physics

I asked about the boreholes that came up in last week's discussion of the TVA data Powertech acquired and declines to share. Couldn't water flow through those holes or other fractures in the ground and move contaminants faster? Hollenbeck says that any such gaps in the rock would undo the mining operation before releasing any pollution. The ISL process relies on maintaining a certain pressure that ensures the water injected pases by every grain of sand in the sandstone to release every small fleck of uranium. If there's a borehole of other gap, the water will rush to that opening and miss much of the sand, producing far less uranium. Thus, Powertech has as little interest in letting water escape through boreholes and fissures as folks concerned about pollution do.

By the way, on that TVA data: Clement says the data Powertech just bought is actually the basis of reports that they have already submitted. The "new" data acquired is really just the source data of the science everyone's already looking at. Hollenbeck compares it to having the Nixon tapes instead of just the Nixon transcripts. The TVA data shows the drift of the boreholes from their surface locations, allowing Powertech to more accurately target the uranium deposits and avoid the spillage described above.

What Iceberg?

Powertech opponent Lilias Jarding of the Clean Water Alliance says that Powertech is just one of ten companies looking into mining uranium in the Black Hills. She says that Powertech would be the tip of the iceberg, building a processing plant that would support many more uranium mining operations.

Clement rejects Jarding's claim. He says Powertech is the only company he knows of with significant interest in hunting for uranium in this part of the world. He says that back in 2005, many companies had staked claims for uranium around the southern Black Hills, but since then, most of those claims have been consolidated. Powertech itself bought out the claims of a company called Neutron in the Dewey-Burdock area.

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We talked about much more, but those are the highlights. Note that I didn't go to Hollenbeck's ranch to persuade or be persuaded. The Powertech team didn't offer me any fancy shrimp dinner or stocks, just a glass of ice water and drive around the southern Hills on a beautiful summer day. I don't endorse the corporate position; I'm simply reporting what they told me. Weigh this report as you see fit against other information in the press as you decide whether you want more uranium mining in the Black Hills.