What?! Nobody brought up the EB-5/Northern Beef Packers scandal at the State Fair gubernatorial debate? My belief is beggared! Debate sponsor Farmers Union is clearly showing its organizational bias toward Republicans, obviously shielding Governor Dennis Daugaard from questions about his involvement in the loss of millions of tax dollars and the privatization and exploitation of a federal program for personal profit on his watch. Obviously.

John Tsitrian agrees with me that Rep. Susan Wismer should not shield Governor Daugaard from her direct questioning. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate announced (unprompted, it seems, by any public criticism) that she would like permission to step down from the Government Operations and Audit Committee that is supposed to be investigating EB-5/NBP and send a proxy to question Governor Daugaard, former governor Mike Rounds, EB-5 exec Joop Bollen, and EB-5 lawyer Jeffrey T. Sveen (if they show) at GOAC's September 24 hearing. Tsitrian says stepping away from GOAC at this crucial moment cheats citizens and Wismer's own campaign:

...Wismer is still an elected official with all the knowledge and responsibilities that go with that position.  I have no doubt that during her work on this matter, Wismer has learned some things that give her a particular set of insights that no proxy could possibly possess. It's Wismer's job to bring that knowledge to bear on the hearings regardless of the political repercussions that will be an inevitable part of this process.

...Wismer's withdrawal from the committee would be doing voters a disservice because she's got a great opportunity to get some substantive media face time as the election approaches. Could there be a better way for voters to get the measure of her and Daugaard than in a face-to-face confrontation occurring during the routine work of government? I relish the chance to watch them doing what we hired them to do, along with all the comparisons and contrasts that go with it. Given her underdog status, Wismer should relish it too [John Tsitrian, "No Way Should Susan Wismer Withdraw From The EB-5 Hearings. No Way," The Constant Commoner, 2014.08.28].

As Tsitrian says, political theater is not inherently repulsive. Sometimes spectacle serves the public interest. Wismer as warrior on EB-5 is exactly the image that made her appearance at the Dakotafest debate a success. Wismer should keep that image ball rolling, stay on GOAC, and be ready to play Watergate inquisitor on September 24. What did you know and when did you know itwho wouldn't want to look Governor Daugaard in the eye and ask him those questions?

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The truest statement of the day comes from Sen. Tim Rave (R-25/Baltic), discussing calls from his colleagues Rep. Bernie Hunhoff (D-18/Yankton) and Sen. Larry Lucas (D-26/Pickstown) to bring Mike Rounds, Dennis Daugaard, Joop Bollen, and Jeff Sveen in for questioning in their investigation of the EB-5 scandal:

Investigating... it's not really in our skill set or our wheelhouse....

[Sen. Time Rave, quoted in Charles Michael Ray, "Dems Push for EB-5 Inquiry," SDPB Radio, 2014.08.27]

You know, Senator Rave, kids come to my classroom all the time and say, "I'm not good at French (algebra, speech, taking tests...)." I say to them the same thing I say to you: "There's no better time to get good at it."

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Chris McClure, Democratic candidate for District 14 House, Sioux Falls, SD, 2014.08.23

Chris McClure, Democratic candidate for District 14 House, Sioux Falls, SD, 2014.08.23

I'll bet Dennis Daugaard wishes this philosophy major would take up welding. Democrat Chris McClure wants to bring his political philosophy and experience to Pierre as District 14 Representative.

McClure emphasizes that he views himself as a moderate. He says he sees no need to raise taxes or impose an income tax. He considers the state's fiscal situation to be pretty good. He supports small business. Harkening to his working-class upbringing (Mom and Dad both worked retail), he believes firmly in personal responsibility. At the same time, he supports social programs that help hard-working families advance.

McClure applies a bothersomely cautious moderation to women's issues, specifically to abortion. He says he's personally pro-life but respects the Constitution. Unfortunately, he also says he would leave South Dakota the way it is, which those of us fighting for women's reproductive autonomy will tell you is mean and misogynistic. McClure says that as a male, it's not his place to comment on whether South Dakota's 72-hour abortion waiting period is appropriate (if we were philosophizing, I'd say he's inconsistently yielding to those males who think it is their place to impose such a waiting period).

We all can understand why McClure and other Democrats in South Dakota may shy away from abortion as a campaign issue: speak up for abortion rights, and it's far too easy for Republicans to mobilize the rabid right and distract us from discussing the shambles GOP policies are making of our schools, roads, and workforce. And as I found with my Catholic socialist neighbor Gerry Lange, we South Dakota Democrats can't afford litmus tests.

But moderation that allows women to be second-class citizens is bad moderation. I'll keep working on McClure.

Now if I got really cranky and exclusive, I could tell McClure to take his moderation to the GOP. McClure says Republicans have indeed tried to recruit him. But he won't bite. "I believe in being the party of reason," says McClure, and that means being a Democrat (yes!). He sees the right wing taking the GOP so far right that Democrats now represent the center. There is no far left in South Dakota, says McClure, among candidates or in the media. McClure says that if he were in Massachusetts, he might be a Mitt Romney Republican... although he carefully points out that he means Governor Mitt Romney, the guy who invented ObamaCare, not 2012 Mitt Romney, the guy who tacked unconvincingly right to get the ultra-conservative donors and votes.

However moderate McClure may be, his main issues mirror those his cross-town counterpart Ellee Spawn puts at the front of her campaign: teacher pay (raise it!), Medicaid expansion (do it!), and minimum wage (boost it and more!).

When I ask if he has a plan to raise teacher pay, he says yes, he does: "Pay teachers more!" There's no complicated socio-economic phenomenon depressing teacher salaries: we pay teacher rock-bottom "because that's what Republicans want to do." McClure calls it "ridiculous" (did someone say moderate?) that South Dakota pays teachers $17,000 to $18,000 less than Wyoming, Minnesota, and the national average.

He says we need to pull more money from the surplus and from economic growth into education, cut other programs, and establish reliably dedicated funds. But voters don't trust Pierre to do that because they have seen that Pierre does not prioritize education, and that's the fundamental problem that we must solve.

McClure says that moderates and conservatives alike should be able to agree that Medicaid expansion roacks from a fiscal perspective. McClure says we're giving up 1,900 jobs and $420 million in federal funding over three years by refusing to expand Medicaid. We'd help workers get health care, which means they'd stay healthy, work more, and boost the economy. Either way, we're paying taxes to cover the expansion, but our recalictrance means we get zilch in return. That, says McClure, is a "very bad financial decision."

McClure says Initiated Measure 18, which will boost the minimum wage to $8.50 an hour, won't create a living wage, but it's closer. He says 70% of South Dakotans support raising the minimum wage and predicts IM 18 will pass. McClure argues that, just like expanding Medicaid, raising the minimum wage makes sense, since lower-income workers are more likely than anyone else to spend their additional dollars and stimulate the economy. Boost the minimum wage, and you boost everybody.

At 32, McClure is the youngest candidate in District 14. Yet his résumé makes a strong case for his ability to legislate. He worked as head attorney for the state's child support enforcement division. He saw children and parents suffering under loopholes in the state's child paternity laws, and he helped the 2012 Child Support Commission revise those laws to establish a clearer process for determining paternity and better protect children's best interests (see 2013 House Bill 1021). McClure is now an associate at Swier Law Firm in Sioux Falls.

Prior to his work in government and law, McClure was student body president at Augustana. He helped start the Big Event concert series, which has brought some pretty big musical names to Sioux Falls. McClure points to that organizing experience as evidence of his ability to defy expectations and get things done.

McClure majored in philosophy at Augustana. Plato said that we'd get the best government when philosophers became kings or when kings started philosophizing. But have no philosophophobia: McClure won't fill you full of abstractions. He'll get a little Socratic, saying that we must recognize that we cannot know everything and thus that our intellect can always err. But he says that knowledge of our fallibility must not stop us from doing our best and acting against injustice. McClure says he'd like to hear more politicians acknowledge their fallibility, admit when they are wrong, and not fear changing their positions for the good of the state.

And that's about as philosophical as McClure gets on the campaign trail. He says the key to winning votes is (his slogan!) "Hard Work and Common Sense." For McClure, hard work means knocking on more doors than the other candidates, who in District 14 include fellow Democrat Valerie Loudenback and Republicans Larry Zikmund and Tom Holmes.

Hard work also means getting people of all political persuasions back to talking to each other. In that spirit, McClure says, "Let's do lunch!" Really! McClure extends an open invitation to any resident of District 14 to join him for lunch between now and November 3 to talk legislative issues. It's first come, first served, so call or Facebook McClure, pick a date, and have lunch with candidate McClure.

I'll remind my new philosopher friend that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. But McClure will remind his friends and neighbors on the campaign trail that his moderate political philosophy and useful experience can bring good policy for District 14 and South Dakota.

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Democrat Ellee Spawn is running for District 12 House. The first-time candidate took time Friday after Democratic Forum in Sioux Falls to tell me about teacher pay, health care, the minimum wage, and other issues that have propelled her into the public arena.

Ellee Spawn, Democrat for District 12 House, 2014.08.22

Ellee Spawn, Democrat for District 12 House, 2014.08.22

Spawn puts teacher pay at the top of her agenda. She says last place in salaries is unacceptable if we're serious about retaining the best and brightest teachers. Her own daughter can testify to this economic fact. Spawn's daughter studied elementary education at SDSU. She wants very much to stay and teach in South Dakota, but she has a five-year-old son and a student loan to pay off. South Dakota's teacher pay won't cut it, so she and her fiancé from Watertown are moving to Minneapolis.

Spawn sees a certain cognitive dissonance in South Dakota's inability to recognize the harm we do to ourselves with our low teacher pay. People don't like to face hard truths, says Spawn, but we have to deal with them.

Of course, we also have to find the money to deal with hard truths. Spawn doesn't jump to new taxes. Instead, she says a statewide effort to boost teacher pay should start with our budget surplus. next, says Spawn, we should stop giving out Benda bonuses. (Hmmm... put Ellee and Charlie Hoffman together, and we just might move the needle on teacher pay!)

Spawn currently manages the Sioux Falls office of M4 Roofing. She has worked in management and sales, served as a virtual assistant, and run her own restaurant. Spawn says her self-employment experience instilled in her a sense of self-accountability and a commitment to getting the job done.

Running a restaurant also shaped Spawn's view on the minimum wage. Spawn says she paid her servers $8 an hour, plus tips. Her kitchen staff got $11 to $12 an hour, and that was nine years ago. Spawn says paying more than other restaurants never hurt her business; it helped her draw and keep experienced and happy workers. It's a bad business practice to pay workers too little. Pay a living wage, says Spawn, and your employees feel less stress, pay more attention to customers, and steal less. Spawn recognizes that South Dakota's minimum-wage initiative, to raise our base wage to $8.50 an hour, is still somewhat shy of a living wage, but she supports it as step in the right direction.

Spawn shows further support for low-income workers with her support for Medicaid expansion. Governor Dennis Daugaard is leaving 48,000 South Dakotans (49,000, said this January 2013 study) without coverage because he'd rather dig in his heels on a specious objection to federal money, which, Spawn points out, already subsidizes 39.6% (yes, she had that number in her head) of the Governor's state budget. The Governor's refusal is "a slap in the face to hard-working South Dakotans."

Spawn says she jumped into the District 12 House race last winter because she was mad. She was sick of her District 12 Reps. Hal Wick and Manny Steele helping the state GOP embarrass South Dakota with their impractical and fringe-nibbling proposals to require everyone to carry a gun, get fluoride out of our water, hold a Constitutional convention, and promote anti-gay discrimination. A friend asked her, "Why don't you run?" Spawn replied, "Why don't I?"

And a candidacy was born. Rep. Steele was term-limited out, and Rep. Wick chose not to run for reëlection, so District 12 is already headed in the right direction. But Spawn wants to make sure her district gets some sensible, unembarrassing leadership. She and fellow Democrat Susan Randall are running against GOP challengers Arch Beal and Alex Jensen.

Spawn is assembling a noteworthy team for her legislative campaign. She just hired John Gossom as her campaign manager and Nebula Group USA as her strategy team. Nebula Group USA is also working for District 33 House candidate Robin Page. Nebula Group USA is run by Bajun Mavalwalla, who like Gossom was involved in the early stages of Corinna Robinson's Congressional campaign.

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When Charlie Hoffman and I got done riding four-wheeler around the prairie (and have I mentioned how big I smile when I say that phrase?), we went inside to talk politics. And oh, did we talk.

Rep. Charlie Hoffman (R-23/Eureka) discusses Pierre politics at his dining room table. (Photo by CAH, 2014.08.19)

Rep. Charlie Hoffman (R-23/Eureka) discusses Pierre politics at his dining room table. (Photo by CAH, 2014.08.19)

Charlie Hoffman has served three terms as a Republican Representative from District 23. He sat out this year's election, leaving incumbent Rep. Justin Cronin and new-Pierre-comer Michele (one L, just like Bachmann) Harrison to win the GOP primary and ascend without challenge to the State House.

Hoffman is yielding the House floor this year for a handful of personal reasons. He'd like to travel more with his wife, Survivor survivor and motivational speaker Holly Hoffman. Some business matters require his attention back at the ranch. And he has a new hunting dog that he wants to train and bond with properly.

But Hoffman makes his stepback sound like a break, not retirement. He's already looked ahead and seen 2016 as a good opportunity to get back into the House. Rep. Cronin will be termed out, leaving an open seat Charlie can seek without challenging a fellow Republican incumbent.

Hoffman's break appears to have some political motivation right alongside the personal. Hoffman expresses a notable disgust for several aspects of how things are running in Pierre right now. And he said these things to me, a liberal blogger, without the influence of scotch. "I'm a haystacker at heart," said Hoffman, "not a statesman, not a diplomat."

I should check that: did he say haystacker or haymaker? Here they come:

Self-Servers and Legislative Autonomy

Hoffman sees coming a tussle for majority leader in which he does not want to partake. He cites a Janklovian aphorism: "In every class of twenty-some new legislators, fifteen know they'll be governor someday." Hoffman says lots of legislators are serving their political ambitions and trying to put their names (Hoffman offers none) on the marquee. Hoffman would prefer to serve with and be one of the legislators who come to Pierre to serve their districts.

Hoffman says those marquee-seeking legislators create a major problem for the legislative branch. As majority whip, Hoffman says he has seen the Governor happily exploit those self-servers to encroach on the Legislature's proper autonomy. The night before each Legislative workweek begins, Hoffman says the Governor hosts a meeting for all of the GOP House and Senate leaders at the Governor's mansion (read: homefield advantage). The Governor's entire staff attends. The "conversation," says Hoffman, flows mostly one way, as the Governor informs the "leaders" of his plans and priorities for the week. The Governor does not inquire, says Hoffman, about the legislators' plans and priorities. And the GOP leaders, mostly concerned about their place in line, generally accept their weekly marching orders.

Hoffman says this one-way relationship is not how the balance of powers is supposed to work. The Legislature should act independently to bring forth different ideas and allow the best policies to rise via competition. One branch dictating the policy agenda means poorer policy. (What was that Charlie said about pastures with only one kind of grass?) Hoffman wants the climbers to quit climbing and recapture their autonomy and vision. Short of that, Hoffman wishes he could have the opportunity to serve under a Democratic Governor who would rekindle his comrades' commitment to the separation of powers.

(The weird subtext here: we could encourage Republican Charlie Hoffman to run for Legislature in 2016 by electing his Democratic House-mate Susan Wismer Governor this year. Charlie, want to help?)

Harmful Partisanship

Hoffman also expresses annoyance with partisan politics. He says the South Dakota GOP has damaged itself and its candidates by allowing Tea Party agitators to pull the party further right. Local radicals may have gotten a kick out of the SDGOP's impeach-Obama resolution, but recall that such absurd radicalism has boosted Democratic fundraising. Hoffman looks beyond our borders to add that such honyockerism may damage the chances of the national party choosing John Thune for Vice-President in 2016.

Partisanship can damage policy along with party. Hoffman says that, without Medicaid expansion, county governments face higher indigent-care costs, and hospitals either eat losses or pass them on to the rest of us. Expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act would erase those costs, says Hoffman. Permit me to remind you that, as Rep. Wismer said Wednesday, the only reason Governor Daugaard seems to have for not expanding Medicaid is partisan ideology.

Future Plans: Raise Teacher Pay!

If circumstances draw Hoffman back to the House, he says he may spend his entire term working on one project: raising teacher pay. He suggests starting by diverting 10% of all gambling revenue (that cut would be over $10 million) to a teacher-pay trust fund. When the fund accrues enough interest, start writing checks, once a year, to every public K-12 teacher in South Dakota.

Our quick calculations suggest this plan might initially place just $500 extra in each teacher's pocket, only a small step toward beating lowly Mississippi, but one must start somewhere. And Hoffman agrees that raising pay will boost the labor pool and ease the teacher shortage.

But wait: gambling revenues currently support property tax relief. Would Hoffman really support taking away that relief? Yes. Instead of handing out pennies per acre, the state could hand that 10% of gambling revenues to the state Investment Council to generate a far larger return.

Production Tax

If landowners feel harmed by the reduction of gambling-revenue tax relief, Hoffman will make it up to them by getting rid of the agriculture productivity tax. Hoffman says this bastardization of the property tax is even worse than a straight income tax. This tax, which based on the predicted agricultural production value of land instead of its actual productivity or sale price, deters farmers from raising prairie grass and drives hyper-production of only a few high-priced crops. Farmers who switch from corn and beans to grass this year will still pay tax based on what they could have made raising corn for the next eight years. Even farmers who stick with corn will suffer as corn prices drop: they'll makes three to four dollars per bushel this year, but the county will tax them for the next couple years as if their land were seven- or eight-dollar-a-bushel corn. Hoffman says the Legislature needs to change the productivity tax to something fairer.

*   *   *

I asked Hoffman if he worried that my reporting the above comments might harm his chances of returning to the House. He paused to think, but pretty quickly said nope. If I'm reading him right (and stop me if you think I'm letting my hopes and the joy of riding four-wheeler all afternoon confound my judgment), Hoffman is professing a commitment to a less partisan, more pragmatic, and more independent Legislature. Let's see if Charlie and District 23 share that commitment in 2016.

Bonus "Did You Know?": One of the photos in Hoffman's home office shows a man riding down Main Street (I forgot to ask where) atop the backseat of a red convertible with a placard on the door reading "Hoffman for Governor."Charlie said that's his dad Leroy Hoffman, who ran against Bill Janklow in the GOP gubernatorial primary in 1978.

Leroy Hoffman also sang opera. He built the house in which Charlie and Holly have raised their family with a beautiful vaulted ceiling for his singing. In the 1960's Hoffman sang well enough to tour Europe professionally. Charlie lived in Europe with his dad for two years during that portion of Leroy's career.

But if you're looking for records, you have to search George Hoffman, not Leroy.

"What," I asked. "Leroy not operatic enough?"

"Yup," said Charlie.

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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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Rochelle Hagel (left), Democratic candidate for District 33 House, and Pam Stillman-Rokusek, campaign volunteer, at Rickstock, Piedmont, South Dakota, 2014.08.16

Rochelle Hagel (left), Democratic candidate for District 33 House, and Pam Stillman-Rokusek, campaign media wrangler (funny, I didn't feel wrangled!), at Rickstock, Piedmont, South Dakota, 2014.08.16

Democrat Rochelle Hagel is running for District 33 House. Really running: the reporter turned salesperson very smartly showed up at Rickstock in Piedmont yesterday with a team of her yellow-shirted campaign volunteers to show support for U.S. Senate candidate Rick Weiland and to work the crowd herself for some coattails.

Hagel is working to light a fire under a local electorate that has very low turnout. She asks voters what issues matter to them and is surprised by how many say that aren't really sure. Among those who do have some issues at the top of mind, many talk in terms laid out by national partisan pundits. Hagel says she tries to lead conversations that lead people to think of themselves first as South Dakotans with shared needs specific to South Dakota. "We all hold the same things dear," says Hagel, things like our children, peace of mind, and doing our duties as citizens and workers. She says she gets positive if sometimes surprised responses to that effort to identify and mobilize around common ground.

Hagel resists telling voters which issues to prioritize, but she says legislators must focus on education. (She'd better say that: her husband teaches at Rapid City Central, and her sister, Rep. Paula Hawks, used to teach at West Central in Hartford.) Even if there is no extra money available for the state budget—and Hagel isn't convinced there is no extra money—Hagel says we need to get creative and compensate teachers better.

For example, Hagel notes that her family's health insurance through her husband's coverage at school has increased premiums every year. She says South Dakota families face an average premium of $10,000 a year. (We didn't have the Web with us during our conversation, but this morning I find this Kaiser Family Foundation chart indicating that the average total cost for family health insurance in South Dakota, combining employer and employee contributions, is $14,999.) Hagel suggests we could save as much as $4,000 per policy by insuring every teacher in the state through a single, non-profit health policy. (Hey—could this be a vote for the Mike Myers CO-OP plan?)

We could then plunge those savings right back into teachers' paychecks. "It's our money!" says Hagel says of the tax dollars going into school insurance plans and teacher salaries. Shifting our money from insurance payments to teachers' pockets would pour a larger chunk of that cash right back into local businesses. Hagel would like to reframe our political discussions to rouse more respect for teachers and education in themselves, but if Republicans can't shed their economic development blinders, she's ready to justify better pay for teachers on economic grounds as well.

Hagel also says South Dakota needs more pork—no, not more handouts from Washington (that's Mike Rounds's gig). Hagel grew up on a farm. She fed little pigs by hand. She recalls how her family called pigs "mortgage lifters": a sow would produce a couple litters a year, the pigs would put on meat fast, and with just a couple sows in the barn, a farmer could sell that pork faster than corn to boost the family income.

Hagel says the change in the past generation of corporate packer ownership of livestock turns farmers restrains that "mortgage-lifting" potential from keeping a few animals on the side of a mostly-crop operation, reducing livestock growers to corporate employees instead of independent entrepreneurs. Hagel doesn't jump to regulate corporations, but she'd like to find ways to support a return to small livestock side operations, such as marketing assistance through our Extension Service. Help farmers sell their product on the small, local scale, disentangled from the big global packers, and we'd improve local farm revenues and selection in our local meat shops.

Hagel lights up on environmental issues. She says our key industries of agriculture and tourism depend on a healthy environment. Wreck the land and the water, and we won't be able to raise food or entice travelers to come camp and boat and take pictures. Hagel says we cannot take risks with our aquifers, including the Madison and the Ogallala. That's why she cannot support the Keystone XL pipeline. "We're smarter than that," says Hagel. She says we can think of a better way to meet our energy needs without imperiling our water.

Hagel and her campaign team will be working to get District 33 voters to rally around those issues and other common interests. Hagel faces incumbent Republican Reps. Jacqueline Sly and Scott Craig and Independent challenger Susan Hixson in the November 4 election.

6 comments

O.K., I've had enough. There's some crowing going around about the South Dakota Libertarian Party's "huge success" in recruiting candidates at its convention last Saturday. The Libertarians found warm bodies for six of the seven statewide slots filled directly by party convention nomination.

"Libertarians 6, Democrats 3," chortles Bob Mercer, referring to the South Dakota Democratic Party's embarrassing failure to nominate candidates for attorney general, treasurer, and commissioner of school and public lands. My friend and convention-goer Leo Kallis says the SDLP are "rightfully rejoicing." Ken Santema deems his party's achieving a status that Dems could not "somewhat notable."

You know what's notable? The South Dakota Libertarian Party nominated six candidates (the most prominent of whom, according to a check of the official state voter registration database after supper tonight is still a registered Republican and thus, under state law and per the Arndt precedent, cannot be certified as a Libertarian nominee) who didn't have to do anything more to qualify for the ballot that show up at the library and say "Why not?"

And did you notice I said they filled six of seven statewide slots? Let's not forget the one Libertarians left empty that Democrats didn't: lieutenant governor. The SDLP didn't nominate a louie-gov because they failed to get anyone to run for gov. All they needed to do was get one of those eager conventioneers to spend the winter lining up a measly 250 Libertarian signatures. The Democrats and Republicans both had two people manage that minor feat of organization and perspiration and undergo a statewide primary.

But that was too much work for the Libertarians, whose laggardliness will now cost them their status as a recognized party. SDCL 12-1-3 conditions party status on fielding a gubernatorial candidate who wins at least 2.5% of the popular vote in November. Whatever status Libertarians get from nominating more candidates at convention than Dems, on November 4, the SDLP will lose its existential status, because it couldn't put first things first.

But if we're really going to play this numbers game, let's look at all the numbers. The Libertarians have six candidates. Yay. Democrats have 70 (71, if we count Susy Blake for lieutenant governor separately). That's Weiland for Senate, Robinson for House, Wismer for Governor, Schultz for Secretary of State, Pierson for treasurer, Allen for PUC, and 64 candidates for state legislature.

That 64 still stinks, stinks, stinks considering that there are 105 seats in the Legislature, and I will be kicking in chairs and knocking tables at Democratic meetings asking why we can't fill that roster. But that 64 is (literally, mathematically) infinitely better than the big zero Libertarians have vying for Legislature. And I'm not even counting the dozens more Democrats who are running for county commissioner, sheriff, and other local offices, ballot lines from which Libertarians are also absolutely absent.

To top it off, some of our 70 Democratic candidates will win. None of the Libertarians will. Again, that's infinitely better performance by Democrats.

We South Dakota Democrats aren't rejoicing—we have lots of problems, and lots of work to do. But we Dems have far more real candidates than emerged from the SDLP's weekend pizza party. We have a far more real party.

And after Election Day, we'll still have a party, unlike the Libertarians. I'd call that somewhat notable.

p.s.: The SDLP convention also couldn't hold its quorum's interest long enough to finalize a platform. Santema reports the SDLP executive committee will paste something together later. We thus have six candidates on our statewide ballot who are unified by nothing other than a label that will become legally meaningless the day after the election.

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