Did you know Governor Dennis Daugaard and billionaire Denny Sanford aren't the only guys proposing a vo-tech scholarship? A month prior to the big announcement of the Build Dakota Scholarship, the Rapid City Economic Development Partnership and other interested Black Hills parties applied for one of those workforce development grants from the state. They asked for $220,000 from the state to support their $440,000 three-year plan; they got $70,000.

The Black Hills plan included all sorts of leveraging and marketing (after two years of top-secret prep, the Black Hills economic developers last year launched "a new economic development branding and marketing effort, unified as Rushmore Region"), career coaching at the K-12 level, metalwork training and certification, and more.

The Black Hills plan also included a scholarship proposal:

We are proposing to create a regional skills-based training scholarship fund, that when matched by the employers seeking the trained employees, would make possible the opportunity for many of these unemployed and often underemployed job candidates to round out their skills/certifications and thus qualify for these attractive job opportunities. This would supplement our recruitment strategy by helping our employers locate employees who are almost ready, but who lack one or two critical skills prerequisite to being hired [Rapid City Economic Development Partnership, Community Incentives Matching Program grant application, November 2014].

Great minds think alike, I guess.

Ben Snow, president of the RCEDP, tells me he and Blaise Emerson of the Black Hills Council of Local Governments are still working on details of the scholarship component of their plan:

We are... encouraged that coincidental to the day we were delivering our presentation to the workforce board, the announcement of the Sanford gift for skilled-trades scholarships was taking place in Sioux Falls and that it is very close in concept to what our proposal included, except on a statewide basis and at a much higher funding level [Ben Snow, e-mail to Madville Times, 2015.01.20].

The Build Dakota Scholarship workforce fields are to be determined within the next couple weeks. If they align with the needs our Black Hills boosters see in their workforce, the state and RCEDP should be able to pool resources and train even more workers for the Black Hills labor pool.

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Custer County uranium mining informational event, hosted by Dakota Rural Action, January 15, 2015

(click to embiggen—share with your neighbors!)

Dakota Rural Action is educating South Dakotans on the risks of uranium mining in the southern Black Hills. The group is hosting a free information session tonight (January 15) at the Custer County Courthouse Annex Pine Room in Custer from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. MST. DRA will have experts on hand to talk about the impacts Azarga/Powertech's plan to mine uranium in Custer and Fall River counties may have on water, agriculture, and public safety.

Among the topics sure to be discussed will be geologist Hannan LaGarry's newly released analysis of previous uranium exploration data from the area indicating that improperly capped boreholes and certain natural features of the local geology may pose a greater risk of contamination from in situ recovery mining operations than either Azarga or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have let on.

Also worthy of discussion tonight are new rules proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (and brought to our attention by Donald Pay—thank you!) to regulate in situ recovery uranium mining. The EPA would impose standards for groundwater recovery. Miners in polluted aquifers would actually get a break: they would only have to restore groundwater to pre-mining conditions—i.e., undo their own pollution but not the pre-existing contaminants. The EPA rules would allow mining companies to propose alternate restoration standards if they can show that meeting the EPA standards is not feasible.

So put on your science hats and come to Custer tonight to talk about the proper balance between economic development and environmental protection in the Black Hills.

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Dr. Hannan LaGarry teaches geology, biology, statistics, and research methods at Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Geology is his main area of study, and he put his geology knowledge to work analyzing borehole logs, drillers' notes, maps, and other data released by Powertech/Azarga last year in its application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Atomic Safety and Licensing Board to conduct in situ recovery mining for uranium in the southern Black Hills.

The NRC-ASLB yesterday released Dr. LaGarry's written supplemental testimony, given November 21, 2014. Dr. LaGarry's analysis finds a number of holes in the ground that, claims the scientist, poke holes in Powertech/Azarga's claims that their uranium mining poses no risk to local ground water.

Reviewing drillers' notes from 4,177 boreholes out of 7,515 boreholes logged, Dr. LaGarry finds...

  • 140 open, uncased holes
  • 16 previously cased, redrilled open holes
  • 4 records of artesian water
  • 13 records of holes plugged with wooden fenceposts
  • 6 records of holes plugged with broken steel
  • 12 records of faults within or beside drilled holes
  • 1 drawing of 2 faults and a sink hole within a drilled transect 7 notations “do not record this value on drill hole maps”
  • 2 notations “do not return this to landowner”
  • 63 redacted borehole logs

LaGarry says that the open boreholes and those capped with wood (which rots) and broken steel (which rusts) could allow mining fluids and contaminants to move through the rock strata into unmined areas. He concludes, "There is no reasonable expectation that confinement remains in drilled areas."

LaGarry says the presence of artesian water reveals the possibility that subsurface contaminants from mining operations could reach the surface and contaminate the Cheyenne River and its tributaries.

And what's that about faults?

During hearings before the ASLB in August of 2014, Powertech repeatedly asserted that faults and sinkholes were not present in the license area, and that the license was somehow unique in that regard. In my previous testimony, I offered the expert opinion that faults were almost certainly present, and the license area was most likely crossed by numerous faults. The observations I document herein demonstrate that my previous expert testimony was correct, and there are numerous faults present in the licensed area. Likewise, the drillers’ notes document a sinkhole along a drilled transect associated with two closely spaced faults also intersecting the drilled transect. Sinkholes typically form along faults, as the fault allows the initial penetration of acidic surface waters, which then dissolve a conduit through the rock which eventually forma a cave that subsequently collapses to for the sinkhole [Hannan LaGarry, written supplementary testimony to Nuclear Regulatory Commission Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, 2014.11.21, p. 3].

NRC staff evidently accepted Powertech/Azarga's assertions of environmental safety based on a spot check of three dozen borehole logs, with no apparent mention of the drillers' notes. LaGarry schools the NRC on basic math:

The minimum number of data points for a statistically valid and meaningful sample is generally 10%. In the Powertech instance the minimum acceptable sample size would be a randomly selected sample of at least 175 borehole logs. Based on the recent disclosure of over 4,000 previously withheld borehole logs, the appropriate sample would be 10% of the entire set, or about 575+ borehole logs checked. NRC Staff presents no basis for its so-called “random” selection. Without such information, professionals in my field cannot accept such assertions where it is possible that the limited data set resulted in poor methodology that is the hallmark of modern junk science. Having examined only 37 data points out of thousands available, NRC would have failed my Math 123 Introduction to Statistics class. None of my student researchers would be allowed to publish or present their research findings had they made such a fundamental error [LaGarry, 2014.11.21, p. 5].

Powertech/Azarga has contended that its in situ recovery mining project poses no threat to water quality in the Black Hills and the Cheyenne River watershed. Dr. LaGarry says we shouldn't be so sure.

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Two straight seasons of sub-quota mountain lion hunts suggest the Black Hills puma population is declining.

To keep the Hills thrill quotient high, here come bears:

Wyatt McCoy lives on the banks of the Belle Fourche River.

During the comings and goings of his young life he has seen all of the usual wildlife residents cross the roads in his headlight. Coons hop and bounce, porcupines waddle, coyote and fox lope, and bobcat and lions slink. But last week, he tells his folks that two black bear cubs crossed the road using the curious side-to side shuffle of bear that is distinct to their species [Bob Speirs, "Black Bears Returning to the Black Hills," South Dakota Hunting, 2014.10.09].

Bears! Black bears! Holy sh—

On the same weekend, while guiding an elk hunter along the Wyoming border I discovered further evidence.

We were scanning the trails for two days straight and categorizing all of the sign we came across. The unusual sign we discovered was chalk white, filled with hair, acorns, and bits of bone. I’d seen the same droppings in my several years of hunting around the borders of Glacier Park in Montana. My hunter has taken perhaps a dozen bear hunts during his life in Manitoba, Alaska, and Russia. We both recognized bear sign [Speirs, 2014.10.09].

Hey, Bomgaars! Better start stocking bear-proof trash cans.Kevin Woster reported on the possibility of black bears re-establishing habitat in the Black Hills after a false bear sighting near Keystone in 2010. Speirs says that new logging practices are clearing ponderosa overgrowth and opening more ground for acorn-producing oaks and other plant life that can feed those hungry bears. Expect Betty Olson to propose a bear-hunting season any day now....

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Mickelson Trail, South Dakota. Photo by Cory Allen Heidelberger, June 26, 2013.

Mica along the Mickelson Trail, heading up and south from Hill City toward Crazy Horse

Kevin Woster notes that the Mickelson Trail is drawing some positive press for the Black Hills. Bicycling includes the Mickelson Trail on its list of the ten best car-free bike paths in the country:

Fat tires were created for adventures like this 109-mile rail trail in South Dakota’s Black Hills, known by the Lakota natives as Paha Sapa and “the heart of everything that is.” It’s a movable feast for the eyes as you pass ponderosa pine forests, prairie lands, rugged mountain terrain, grazing cattle, swimmable creeks, and rocky canyons, feeling with every pedal stroke that you’re traveling on sacred ground. Though the route peaks at 6,100 feet of elevation, it rarely exceeds a four percent grade [Lauren Matison, "Ten Best Car-Free Bike Paths in the USA," Bicycling, 2014.09].

Contrary to Woster's report, the cycling magazine doesn't explicitly rank the Mickelson Trail the best of the best; the Mickelson is just the first item to click in a list that includes the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes in Idaho, John D. Rockefeller Jr.'s Carriage Trails in Maine, and (closest to South Dakota) the Katy Trail in Missouri. But I'll vouch for the Mickelson Trail's visual stunningness and geological and ecological diversity. It's the best bike ride I've ever had, solo and with my family.

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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.

*   *   *

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.

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The Clean Water Alliance was at Rickstock yesterday, spreading the word about the perils of the Powertech/Azarga in-situ leach uranium mining proposal for the Black Hills. CWA's Lilias Jarding took a moment to explain what's at stake in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's hearing on the Fall River/Custer County mining project license this week:

Whoa—did you catch that part about ten companies expressing interest in mining the Black Hills for uranium? Jarding tells me that Powertech/Azarga's isn't just applying to mine; they want to build a processing plant that would have the capacity to process the uranium mined by subsequent entrants into the Black Hills mining game.

For opponents of uranium mining in the Black Hills, stopping Powertech/Azarga at this week's public comment session and evidentiary hearing becomes all the more important. Powertech is the tip of the uranium-iceberg. Let them in, and they are banking on other uranium miners to follow.

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RickstockCrowd Hey, what are all those people doing in Dr. Kevin Weiland's yard?

Take It Back Band Why, listening to Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Rick Weiland and the Take It Back Band...

Rickstock2014 ...on a beautiful evening in the Black Hills.

Clean Water AllianceFolks at this show don't want any uranium mining...

Seamans Clanton...and these ranch men will have no truck with pipelines...

KurtzPipe ...but pipes are fine, especially with Kurtz classing up the smoking section.

BlogReadersatRickstockRick voters and blog readers are also cool with flower power and adult beverages in moderation.

WeilandatRickstockCandidate Weiland had a moment between sets to chat about the campaign. Before playing the big show Saturday at his brother Kevin's Piedmont place, Rick walked the Central States Fair parade through downtown Rapid City. Parade in the morning, working the stage and working the crowd all afternoon and evening (and before the sun dropped below the ponderosas, it was hot on that stage!)... you tell me who the hardest working man in the Senate campaign is!

Rick noted that the last time he marched in the Central States Fair parade (another campaign, another decade), he recalls folks actually booing at him. Saturday morning, he said parade-goers were cheering and stepping out to shake his hand. That's long-term momentum!

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