Canadian/Chinese uranium predator Powertech/Azarga can't stand a little criticism. Earlier this month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a license to Powertech for its proposed in-situ uranium mining project in the southern Black Hills. The Rapid City Journal called the NRC's issuance a "rush to judgment," given that Powertech still faces two regulatory hearings in South Dakota before it can start despoiling the sacred Paha Sapa.

Powertech VP Richard Blubaugh took offense to the Journal's criticism and complained to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

From: Richard Blubaugh [mailto:rblubaugh@powertechuranium.com]
Sent: Tuesday, April 15, 2014 10:53 AM
To: Burrows, Ronald; Lancaster, Thomas; Yilma, Haimanot
Subject: Informing Public of Process

Ron, Tom and Haimanot,

Please see editorial from Rapid City Journal below. Will NRC respond in order to correct the misunderstanding presented to the public regarding the licensing process? I will follow up with telephone call later today.

Richard Blubaugh

NRC's Thomas Lancaster forwarded Blubaugh this message from the NRC's Office of Public Affairs telling Blubaugh to chill out:

From: McIntyre, David
Sent: Thursday, April 17, 2014 8:54 AM
To: Lancaster, Thomas
Subject: RE: Informing Public of Process

Tom -

The Office of Public Affairs does not recommend responding to the Rapid City Journal’s editorial, “NRC’s Rush to Judgment.” The editorial did not mischaracterize our process or regulations, which direct the staff to issue a license once the necessary safety and environmental reviews are complete, even if an adjudicatory hearing is still underway. The editorial disagrees with that process, which is their opinion.

Dave

You can read the complete e-mail exchange in this PDF copy.

It's bad enough Powertech and its foreign investors are using big money to spread their pro-industry propaganda in South Dakota. It's worse that they try to get the government to intervene in the media on their behalf. Thankfully, in this case, the government declined, and Powertech must do its own dirty work.

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The Hot Springs Star is burning bright with debate over the Powertech/Azarga uranium mining proposal. Local project manager Mark Hollenbeck tells his neighbors that in situ uranium mining is "inherently safe" and is "Nature's perfect solution to global air pollution problems."

I'm not sure what "inherently safe" means here. Certain methods of mining may be safer than others, but firing up machines, disrupting geological formations, and exposing radioactive material has basic, unavoidable risks.

Nor am I sure what "Nature's perfect solution" means. A perfect solution would mean a response with no downside. A "perfect" solution to air pollution would make all air pollution go away without creating any other pollution in the soil or water. Mining uranium pollutes the land and water. Mining, processing, and transporting uranium brings people and the Black Hills biosphere into closer contact with radioactive material. Producing energy from uranium, while notably clean and efficient compared to burning coal or wood, still produces nuclear waste and the chance of nasty industrial accidents that can condemn entire regions. If Nature offered any "perfect" solution, it would be to wipe out the one species doing singular and extensive damage to all the others (and I'm asking for a veto on that one!).

Hollenbeck's April 7 letter has sparked responses from neighbors who see his foreign bosses' mining scheme as less than perfect. Pringle's Gardner Gray counters Hollenbeck's industrial propaganda with this letter to the editor, sent to my inbox yesterday:

Dear Sir:

A recent Guest Editorial in the Hot Springs Star from Powertech spokesperson Mark Hollenbeck brings to mind the words from Robert B. Thomas of the original Farmers Almanac who tells us that "it is by our works and not our words that we would be judged". This is of course good advice for all of us but particularly in this case it might apply to Mr. Hollenbeck and Powertech.

Our only assurance that this mining is going to be safe is their word. They can certainly have their own opinions about this mining issue but they cannot have their own facts. Scientists from the USGS, scientists from the School of Mines, including the highly respected Professor Rahm and other independent scientists, have repeatedly pointed out the dangers in assuming that this mining is safe from a water or environmental standpoint. Relying on scientists who are on the Powertech payroll to paint as rosy a picture as possible is unwise and counterproductive as well as confusing.

We are being told that uranium is safe thereby trying to convince us that ISL uranium mining is safe. Nothing is further from the truth. The USGS clearly states that there is no ISL operation in this country that has ever remediated the water or the land back to pre-mining condition or better. In other words, it cannot be done. Powertech knows this, as does the NRC and the EPA and the DENR.

Because of this scientific fact, Powertech wrote SB158 in 2011, invited incumbent representatives Verchio and Russell to misrepresent the bill to the legislature as a removal of duplication, but in truth stripped the DENR of its oversight and removed most of the water laws of the state that protected the water quality in the first place.

May we not make a clear judgement on the poor quality of the works of Powertech by just this one action? Who, in their right mind, would decide to weaken the public's water protection laws for private gain? What kind of person would risk billions of gallons of public water for any kind of monetary gain? Would you endanger public water supplies for $500,000 or one million or two? I certainly hope not.

This water does not belong to Powertech. It belongs to the public. The only requirement now for Powertech to remediate the water and the land to pre-mining or better condition is to get the contamination to as low as reasonably achievable, or ALARA which is the NRC minimum. What kind of protection is this? What kind of requirement is this? Powertech has agreed to a 25-million-dollar bond to cover remediation expenses where the NRC itself has assured us that remediation will take upwards of possibly 150 million if memory serves. If Powertech walks away from the cleanup based on the assumption that it is unreasonable to spend the money it will take to do so, who will pay the difference between 25 million and possibly 150? Well sir, we will, the very few who want this mining and the very many who do not.

Dr. Cook is correct. Since there is no guarantee that the water and land will be successfully remediated, ( in fact expert data to indicate that indeed it is impossible to do so,) it is only reasonable that Powertech stop this project before it goes any further. Powertech has not mined a single ounce of uranium since its inception and has very little experience to do so. It is not Powertech's fault that they won't clean the toxic waste up. The glaring fact is that they cannot. No one can. We need to measure this company by it's works, not it's words.

Gardner Gray
Pringle, South Dakota

Civilization requires energy. However, there are better, safer, cleaner ways to get energy that don't require putting the earth, water, and people of the Black Hills at greater risk.

10 comments

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.

20 comments

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....

14 comments

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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