Black Hills, get ready to get nuked. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday issued a license to Powertech to operate a uranium recovery facility in Fall River and Custer counties in western South Dakota.

Powertech, or Azarga, or whoever this Canadian-Chinese company is now, crows:

Richard Clement, Powertech's President and Chief Executive Officer, said, "The issuance of the NRC's final license is the culmination of eight years of planning and evaluation and confirms again that our plan for in situ recovery mining at Dewey-Burdock is safe and will have minimal environmental impact. The robust nature of NRC's licensing process also greatly facilitates finalization of Powertech's other Dewey-Burdock permits."

"I am very pleased with NRC's decision to issue the final license for the Dewey-Burdock Project," said John Mays, Powertech's Chief Operating Officer. "The NRC and numerous other agencies that participated in the review and analysis necessary to complete licensing components are to be commended for their professionalism. Similarly, we congratulate the Dewey-Burdock team for its success in achieving the Company's foremost permitting objective, the NRC Source and Byproduct Materials License."

Mark Hollenbeck, Powertech's Dewey-Burdock Project Manager, concurred and added, "This license is a significant milestone for the project -- one made possible by not only Powertech's staff, contractors and consultants, but also local residents who have provided their vital support and perseverance throughout the NRC's licensing action. The community anxiously awaits the employment opportunities the project will bring. We thank everyone for their contributions and look forward to completing the remaining permits so construction can begin" [Powertech press release, 2014.04.08].

Powertech still needs approval from the EPA, as well as mining and water permits from the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The NRC ruling is a battle lost, but folks who respect the Black Hills still have a chance to stop this predation upon our land and water.

Update 12:55 MDT: Rapid City water drinker and tourism promoter John Tsitrian snorts at Powertech/Azarga's financials and questions their assurances to investors that the permitting process will be done by the end of May.

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The Rapid City Journal notices the National Park Service's survey of visitors to Mount Rushmore and finds confirmation of what we South Dakotans know quite well: while we have minor complaints about parking fees and "Made in China" trinkets, Mount Rushmore is pretty cool.

The survey itself offers a number of interesting observations about South Dakota's most famous monument. Conducted during the first week of summer in 2013, the on-site survey got 782 responses. 61% of those respondents said they were visiting Mount Rushmore for the first time. That's half the fun for us 39-percenters who go back to see the monument again: we are surrounded by people who are seeing something remarkable for the first time. We return visitors have more time to turn and face south up the Avenue of Flags or on the grand viewing terrace and look at all those other faces gazing toward the mountaintop.

Those other faces we see at Mount Rushmore are to some extent a wide sample of America. In just seven days, the surveyors caught visitors from 49 states. For us South Dakotans, Mount Rushmore offers a unique chance to be surrounded by people we don't know:

Mount Rushmore: U.S. Visitors by State. Littlejohn, M. and Y. Le. 2014. Mount Rushmore National Memorial visitor study: Summer 2013. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/EQD/NRR—2014/785. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.

Littlejohn, M. and Y. Le. 2014. Mount Rushmore National Memorial visitor study: Summer 2013. Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/EQD/NRR—2014/785. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.

When I go to Mount Rushmore, only 1 in 25 of the people around me is from South Dakota. That chance to see a whole bunch of America is worth a field trip for the school kids right there.

But remind the kids that they aren't seeing the most accurate cross-section of America. In the center of a nation that's 78% white, 17% Hispanic, and 13% black, the June 21–27 survey found visitors were 93% white, 3% Asian, and 1% black. In a state that's 9% American Indian, and in a national forest of great spiritual significance to our Lakota neighbors, the survey found just 1% of visitors were Indians.

The latter should not surprise: if someone farted in my church, I'd probably sit in a different pew, too. The Mount Rushmore survey doesn't say much about the inherent cultural tension of four pale faces blasted into a stony temple stolen in conquest from a darker people. Three respondents mention that they were disappointed to find Heritage Village, the tipi cluster along the trail near the base of the mountain, closed. One respondent wishes that "Native Americans were more a part of the memorial." Another drops the white-imperialism bomb:

We found it to be underwhelming, and a surprisingly good indicator of why the Native Americans were, have been, and remain against this type of colonialism. White supremacy. We were far more intrigued by the nature than by this giant, clearly out of place, white rock with heads of dead white guys in the middle of the Black Hills [visitor comment, Margaret Littlejohn and Yen Le, Mount Rushmore National Memorial visitor study: Summer 2013, Natural Resource Report NPS/NRSS/EQD/NRR—2014/785, National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado, March 2014, p. 99.].

Maybe if there's a good side to this cultural tension, Mount Rushmore generates strong tourism synergy with that other big Black Hills rock project. Two thirds of the Mount Rushmore visitors surveyed said their trip itinerary included the Crazy Horse Memorial. That even larger rock refacement is fraught with its own cultural tensions, but at least the two stone monuments are boosting each other's visitor numbers and perhaps inspiring more Americans to cultural introspection through comparative grandiose sculpturology.

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South Dakota misses out on another chance to cash in on the North Dakota oil boom. The state has determined that sand in the Black Hills is not suitable for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the process driving America's current oil boom.

The ideal "proppant" for fracking is and composed of over 99% quartz grains. DENR says our sand isn't quartzy enough to help drill, baby:

All of the samples failed to meet American Petroleum Institute recommended weight distribution specifications for natural proppants. Many samples collected from Tertiary- to Quaternary-age geologic units (White River Group, Arikaree Group, Ogallala Group, glacial outwash, terrace deposits, Sand Hills Formation, and alluvial deposits) have well-rounded and spherical grains, but most contain a significant amount of minerals other than quartz. Most samples collected from Jurassic- and Cretaceous-age geologic units (Hulett Sandstone Member of the Sundance Formation, Unkpapa Sandstone, Lakota Formation, Fall River Sandstone, and Fox Hills Sandstone), contain a significant amount of minerals other than quartz and/or contain angular and elongated grains. Samples collected from the Cambrian-Ordovician-age Deadwood Formation and Pennsylvanian-Permian-age Minnelusa Formation were determined (1) to be too fine-grained, (2) to be too hard due to carbonate or silica cement, (3) to contain angular and elongated grains, (4) to have significant iron staining, or (5) to contain a significant amount of minerals other than quartz.

None of the sand in South Dakota could likely be mined solely as hydraulic fracturing sand. In order to fully utilize a sand deposit and extract a marketable volume of sand from these sources, significant volumes of coarser or finer material would have to have a market as well. If there is demand for other uses, then the sand may be economical to mine. Deficiencies found in samples collected for this study included not being comprised of greater than 99 percent quartz, being too coarse or fine grained, having sand grains that are not the correct shape or having sand grains that are tightly cemented together [SD DENR, "Assessment of South Dakota's Sand and Alumina Resources for Use as Proppant," released March 2014].

Looks like the folks who bought sand-mining claims in the Black Hills will have to look into swim-beach maintenance.

The study also finds we lack the bauxite and kaolinite that would allow us to cash in on manufacturing ceramic proppant for fracking in the Bakken and elsewhere. But on the bright side...

“DENR undertook this study at the request of the 2012 Legislative Oil and Gas Summer Study Committee that was looking for ways to benefit from the North Dakota oil boom,” said DENR Secretary Steve Pirner. “While the study did not produce the desired results, DENR’s geologists gained a better understanding of sand resources in western South Dakota and that may prove useful in the future” [DENR, 2014.03.27].

Ah, knowledge.

Our sand won't frack—I feel a new state motto coming on....

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Oh, how many times have I been biking up Spearfish Canyon or down the Mickelson Trail and thinking, "I could really use some pizza." But wait, what's that smoking down the highway? It's Spearfish's Mark Friedel coming to refuel me with his mobile pizza oven. Mobile pizza brick oven:

Brick ovens have been used in cooking for centuries, but Friedel had his oven custom-made by an individual in Boulder, Colo. The mobile oven includes a prep table in the back, a hand washing station, an awning, and service tables up front [Kaylee Tschetter, "Mobile Pizza Oven to Cruise Spearfish," Black Hills Pioneer, 2014.03.25].

A brick oven on a trailer, cooking pizza in two to three minutes. That's Reason #547 to live in the Black Hills.

Alas, Friedel won't be frisbee-ing pizza to riders on the go. But come May, he will be setting up Black Hills Pizza once a week in the Crow Peak Brewery parking lot, once a week out somewhere on the east side of Spearfish, and then hit local events around the Hills. He also plans to hire out to weddings, reunions, and other events. I don't know how many pizzas the oven can make at once, but I'll get in line for a Noah's Ark.

Now if Friedel can add flammeküche to the menu for Alsatian ex-pats and his large local Francophone population, he'll corner the Black Hills pizza market! Whoo-hoo, pizza!

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Opponents of uranium mining in the Black Hills just lost one cause for hope. Previously Powertech appeared so impoverished that it might run out of cash before winning its permits to use and abuse Black Hills water in pursuit of the uranium under Custer and Fall River counties.

But now Powertech has struck a deal to merge with the larger Azarga Resources. That means much more cash to fight for the opportunity to pollute the Black Hills:

“The biggest change is the fact that we’ve now become very well capitalized and have the capacity to move this project forward,” Powertech’s Dewey-Burdock project manager Mark Hollenbeck said, referring to the in situ uranium mine proposed in the Southern Hills.

Azarga injected more than $5 million into Powertech’s pocket between July and October of last year, rescuing the company from financial insolvency. In exchange Azarga gained controlling stake of Powertech’s proposed Centennial ISR uranium mine in Colorado and Azarga reps found seats on Powertech’s board of directors. Concurrently, Azarga steadily increased its stake in Powertech to an eventual 45.1 percent of all issued and outstanding common shares.

“Azarga has been our largest shareholder and main financier since mid-2013,” Clement said. “The merger importantly brings cash and undrawn financing facilities with its assets that put Powertech in a much more robust position moving forward” [Adam Hurlburt, "Powertech Plans Merger with Hong Kong-based Azarga Resources," Black Hills Pioneer, 2014.02.28].

A robust Powertech troubles Black Hills water-drinker and tourism profiteer John Tsitrian:

Where Powertech had been just barely hanging on, financially, and staked everything on Dewey-Burdock, its new incarnation as Azarga Uranium probably gives it significantly more financial staying power.  On the upside, a company like Azarga, with extensive interests in mines and deposits in the United States and central Asia, may not think the trouble and expense of developing Dewey-Burdock is worth the permitting risk that apparently hamstrung Powertech for the past few years.  We'll see.  Much as I'm glad  that Powertech finally ran out of patience and resources to pursue this thing, I'd be wary of Azarga's intentions.  This is likely to go on for a while [John Tsitrian, "This Is Interesting. A Few Weeks Ago I Told Powertech Uranium To Get Lost. Well, They Did . . . Sort Of," The Constant Commoner, 2014.02.27].

Powertech just got more ammo. Friends of the Hills, keep firing back!

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The big October blizzard gave Black Hills opponents of the Powertech uranium mining proposal an extra three weeks to prepare their arguments for their hearing before the South Dakota Water Management Board. Now Powertech itself has helped them gain more time to win their argument to the state that Powertech's in-situ uranium mining would be bad for the Black Hills.

On November 19, Powertech moved to postpone the next round of testimony before the Water Management Board. With opponents in full agreement, the board granted that continuance on Monday. This move mirrors a decision by the Board of Minerals and Environment earlier this month to postpone further hearings until both the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency have issued permits ot Powertech.

This wait-and-see is good in a way: the longer we wait, the more chance there is that Powertech will finally run out of money before it can win approval for its risky, ill-informed venture. But if federal authorities approve Powertech's permits, these delays give pro-business South Dakota regulators cover to ignore further protest from local activists and say, "The feds say it's o.k.; who are we to disagree?"

Powertech opponents, keep your briefs handy for the state boards, but now turn your fire to the federal regulators and Congressional delegation to let them know Powertech is bad for the Black Hills

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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.

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Ken Steinken writes that Powertech's in-situ uranium mining plan is based on two fundamentally flawed assumptions: geological changelessness and human infallibility.

Powertech says the millions of gallons of water it will contaminate to find uranium in the southern Black Hills won't leak out of the supposedly impervious rock strata above and below the uranium deposits. Steinken, a seasoned spelunker in Jewel Cave, knows better:

Then I think of Jewel Cave and its 166 miles of passages snaking underneath only six square miles of land, and the memory shoots holes through the “solid rock” idea. It makes me wonder how Powertech can claim that radioactive liquids won’t get into the aquifers where drinking water comes from.

I’m well aware that different strata of rock have different characteristics and that some are denser than others. But even if a rock layer has been virtually impenetrable in the past, there is no guarantee that it will continue to be so in the future.

Our planet is neither solid nor is its current form permanent. It’s in a constant state of flux. It is subject to internal and external forces. Groundwater and gravity team up to exploit and penetrate the tiniest crack or weakness in an “impenetrable” rock layer. The wells that Powertech drills will also connect previously separated layers of rock, providing a way for radioactive water to get where it’s not supposed to go. The history of in-situ uranium mines in Wyoming, Nebraska and Texas shows that this is exactly what happens [Ken Steinken, "A Uranium Mining Proposal That's Larded with Snake Oil," Post Independent (Colorado), 2013.11.10].

He sees in Powertech's wishful thinking the same hubris that has brought other profit-seekers and their neighbors to calamity:

The problem is that humans looking to turn a profit make ridiculous promises that distort or ignore science, history and common sense. Remember the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that British Petroleum claimed could not fail, or the West, Texas, fertilizer plant that couldn’t explode, or the earthquake-proof Fukushima nuclear power plant that continues to spew radioactivity today? [Steinken, 2013.11.10]

South Dakota has better ways to make a buck. We don't need to risk our water and land and people for a Canadian company's plan to dig uranium for China.

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