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Lance Russell, Environmental Lawyer: Yikes!

Last updated on 2011.05.11

State Representative Lance Russell's censure for unprofessional and illegal activity as Fall River County state's attorney is troubling to those of us who believe in fair execution of justice. The inability of Rep. Russell's fellow legislators to find his misconduct troubling is also troubling.

But here's a troubling policy issue: During this year's session, Rep. Russell co-sponsored Senate Bill 158, a tricky law passed on behalf of Canadian uranium mining firm Powertech. The South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources denied two previous permit applications from Powertech to mine uranium at the south edge of the Black Hills. SB 158 conveniently removed state oversight of uranium mining permits and left the only authority over such dangerous activity in South Dakota in the hands of the regionally understaffed Environmental Protection Agency.

Rep. Russell got a master's degree from the environmental and natural resources program at the University of Denver's Sturm College of Law. If you listen to him in this video from U.D., you hear the language of a lawyer trying to avoid specifics. He certainly doesn't talk about using his environmental studies to help the environment. Instead, he speaks of East River politicians who don't have the problem of lots of public lands and who are more interested in issues like water development. Russell criticizes the governor (his own Republican governor!) and federal legislators who he says just aren't interested in sparsely populated areas like his home turf. Notice that Russell doesn't say one word about the environment he lives in, just the people... which I suspect is code for the rich developers and companies that want to exploit the environment.

Russell's wonderful vagueness continues even as he speaks of a specific professor whose views on environmental protection apparently differed from Russell's. This professor was on the other side of litigation against the state of South Dakota on an issue on which Russell says he worked with Senator John Thune. Russell never says what the issue was, only that in this class with this professor, he "was the only one that came from that perspective." Translation: while everyone else in the class was studying environmental law to learn how to protect the environment, Russell was learning how craft legislation like SB 158 that would put foreign exploiters like Powertech ahead of local water quality, health, ranching, and tourism.

In the U.D. promo video, Russell says he's already drawn some paying clients for his environmental law knowledge, and he wants to specialize in the area of federal land use... emphasis, I fear, on the word use.


  1. larry kurtz 2011.04.26

    Sounds like a well-executed coup.


    "Canada is a country rich in uranium resources and a long history of exploration, mining and generation of nuclear power (for coverage of nuclear power, see information page on Nuclear Power in Canada). To 2008, more uranium had been mined in Canada than any other country – 428,000 tU, 18% of world total."

    What about a statewide intiative to either block uranium mining or force a BP-like cleanup bond?

  2. Douglas Wiken 2011.04.26

    Russell's study of environmental law may have been more in the line of "know your enemies" instead of a search for knowledge likely to benefit the environment.

  3. Donald Pay 2011.04.26

    I want to clarify something here. DENR didn't recommend denial of the permit. They required Powertech to supply more data and information so that DENR staff could determine whether the proposed uranium mine could operate without polluting the environment.

    I suspect Powertech wanted to shop for a quicker route to permitting since a European nuclear cartel that was paying their bills (in exchange for claims to the uranium and some of the revenues) was about to bail on them, and they were essentially broke. I suspect the bill was meant to show some new suckers...errr, investors, that there was a quicker way to get this done (through the feds).

    I'm not sure how much money Lance may have sunk into this project, but a lot of the usual suspects in South Dakota probably had some investments in this project. In light of this, it's heartening that DENR didn't cave to whatever pressure must have been coming down. It leads me to suspect the bill was less about trying to get the project permitted than it was a last chance to jack up the stock price a bit so they could sell before Powertech goes down.

  4. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.04.26

    Say, Don, didn't Rep. Russell say at a crackerbarrel that his mom owns land that's making money off mining leases from Powertech?

    And Larry, I'd love to see an initiative on this topic. Rep. Russell helped write the referral petitions for the Tea Partiers on health insurance reform; do you think he'd serve the public with his environmental/legal education by helping us write a uranium-mining initiative?

  5. Kelly Fuller 2011.04.26

    The truth is, most environmental law in this country is practiced by folks protecting a particular business's interests. Public-interest environmental law practitioners are numerically rare although they're what people usually think of when they think of environmental law.

  6. caheidelberger Post author | 2011.04.27

    What? Law schools aren't filled with idealists eager to use their powers for good? Kelly, don't start my day with such a downer. :-)

  7. Donald Pay 2011.04.27

    I'm aware of several SD issues that attorney Jay Tuchton has been involved in, though I don't think I ever met him. He's a great environmental attorney who works with Earthjustice. Probably the issue Lance is referring to is the prairie dog poisoning issue.

    I recall there was discussion about four years ago regarding an initiative on uranium mining. I had a suggestion for an initiative that needed to be more fully developed. The problem with uranium issues is the complexity of state/federal primacy over certain parts of regulation. The 1980 initiative (which almost passed) simply banned uranium mining, nuclear waste and nuclear power. Had it passed it probably would not have survived a court challenge.

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