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DOJ Wins $179M to Clean up Harding County Uranium Site

Joe O'Sullivan reports that we're finally going to get around to cleaning up the abandoned Riley Pass uranium mine in Harding County... after letting toxic and radioactive debris sit exposed to the elements for fifty years:

...a tangled series of court proceedings has resulted in a $179 million plan to clean up the majority of the mine site. That money is part of a settlement, announced last month by the U.S. Department of Justice and approved by a judge last week, required Anadarko Petroleum Corp. to pay a $5.15 billion settlement of fraud claims from a 2006 acquisition of Kerr-McGee [Joe O'Sullivan, "Settlement Gives $179 Million to Clean up Abandoned Uranium Mine in Harding County," Rapid City Journal, 2014.06.01].

But note that it's not the Harding County Commission or the Attorney General or the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources getting the job done. No, after opening ourselves to exploitation at the hands of Big Energy, South Dakota had to rely on the federal Department of Justice to lawyer up and drag the Kerr-McGee Corporation kicking and screaming into fulfilling its obligation to clean up its mess.

Here's the trick Kerr-McGee played to dodge cleaning up thousands of toxic sites it created across the country:

Old Kerr-McGee operated numerous businesses, which included uranium mining, the processing of radioactive thorium, creosote wood treating, and manufacture of perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel. These operations left contamination across the nation, including radioactive uranium waste across the Navajo Nation; radioactive thorium in Chicago and West Chicago, Illinois; creosote waste in the Northeast, the Midwest, and the South; and perchlorate waste in Nevada.

In the years prior to 2005, Old Kerr-McGee concluded that the liabilities associated with this environmental contamination were a drag on its business, the exploration and production of oil and gas. With the intent of evading these and other liabilities, Old Kerr-McGee created a new corporate entity – defendant New Kerr-McGee – and, through a scheme executed in 2002 and 2005, transferred its valuable oil and gas exploration assets to the new company. The legacy environmental liabilities were left behind in the old company, which was re-named Tronox, and spun off as a separate company in 2006. As a result of these transactions, Tronox was rendered insolvent and unable to pay its environmental and other liabilities. In 2009, Tronox went into bankruptcy [U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs, press release, 2014.04.03].

Stronger environmental regulation might have prevented the contamination at Riley Pass in the first place. Absent such regulation, Kerr-McGee was able to make a mess a midst its profits, then use financial and legal tricks to evade its environmental responsibility. Only robust investigation and litigation by the federal government was able to drag them back to Harding County to fulfill their basic duty to clean up their mess.

But as O'Sullivan notes, all that effort wins remedy for just a tiny portion of the damage wrought on South Dakota by poorly regulated energy exploration:

Charmaine White Face, coordinator of Defenders of the Black Hills, an organization that promotes the clean-up of abandoned mines in the region, called the Riley Pass settlement "a good precedent."

But the Riley Pass mine is one of only 103 abandoned uranium mine sites in Harding County, according to White Face.

"What about the other 102?" White Face said. "We still need to keep on pushing for clean-up for all the abandoned mines" [O'Sullivan, 2014.06.01].

The Canadian firm Powertech wants to open another uranium mine in Custer and Fall River counties in southwestern South Dakota. Powertech promises they won't make a mess. Our experience with Kerr-McGee in Harding County should teach us not to take such promises at face value. The Riley Pass settlement should teach us to impose stiff regulations on mining and secure money up front to clean up whatever mess a bad corporate actor may leave.


  1. Jerry 2014.06.02

    Good reporting Cory, I disagree with you about requiring companies to abide by stiff regulations and then put secure monies up front before they engage. As noted by Kerr-McGee, they can simply change their names or declare themselves bankrupt and then it all goes into smoke. The only safe way to do it is not allow it period.

    There has always been speculation that the exposed mining in Harding county has led to increases in cancer downwind from that place. I was not aware that there was 103 mines in that location either, so yeah, what about the other 102 locations? When will they be sealed and what is the state of South Dakota and the representatives in Harding county doing about that?

    No Powertech, Ever.

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.06.02

    Jerry, I will grant that point. Some industrial energy proposals may be unsafe at any speed. But if there are acceptable energy projects, and if there is no such thing as benefit without risk, I stand by my recommendation of stiff regulatory regimes and money up front to minimize corporate chicanery.

  3. bret clanton 2014.06.02

    Not to rain on the parade but in the case of Riley Pass and 88 other uranium mine sites it was the Feds who let this happen seeing as how they are all on federal property. I believe there was only two active mine sites on private property with the rest ( 13 ) being only exploratory cuts. I really don't think my county tax dollars should be spent fighting something that was allowed and encouraged by the federal government..... and besides its only been 60 years....whats the big hurry feds....

  4. Nick Nemec 2014.06.02

    I'm just glad they got the settlement to do cleanup. This is the type of thing that gets pushed to the back burner whenever a Republican is in the White House because forcing a settlement on a big company would be considered anti-business. They move forward in fits and starts because of the influence of corporate lobbyists.

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.06.02

    Ah, good point, Bret! Then that's all the more reason to make sure we don't send South Dakota deregulators like Mike Rounds to Washington.

  6. Lanny V Stricherz 2014.06.02

    Western SD's abandoned uranium mines should be a superfund project for cleanup. Can't tell if the Jerry posting @ 9:58 AM is by Jerry Wilson, but sounds like it could be. Jerry, former editor of SD Magazine, has an excellent LTE in the Argus Leader this morning about why The Canadien, Chinese company should not be allowed to get started at Dewey Burdock and pointed out how the SD legislature hamstrung the Department of Environment and Natural Resources from doing its job, with a bill that they passe in the just finished session. I can cut and paste his letter if anyone is interested.

  7. mike from iowa 2014.06.02

    Fortunate for all,Dems had control of the WH and both houses of Congress in the early 2000s so deals like K-M couldn't have happened. Wait-that isn't right. Wingnuts claimed you can't force these korporations to be good stewards because it cost them too much money and they wouldn't be profitable. If you let them cut corners,they make more money and can hire more workers,unless they off-shore their profits so they don't pay their taxes. Nevermind-trees cause acid-rain.

  8. Lynn 2014.06.02

    Lanny please do

  9. Lanny V Stricherz 2014.06.02

    Chinese and Canadian-funded Powertech wants to mine uranium in the Southern Black Hills by the in situ method — dissolving uranium in the aquifer, pumping it to the surface for extraction, then dumping polluted water deep into the Earth.

    Twice before, foreign corporations mined uranium in the Hills and left a radioactive mess. The South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources lists 263 abandoned uranium sites in the state. Radioactive material and toxic heavy metals have polluted tributaries of several South Dakota rivers.

    We needn’t repeat the mistakes of neighboring states. The Crow Butte mine near Crawford, Neb., has a long history of spills and “excursions” of radioactive water into the aquifer. And the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality cited the Smith Ranch/Highland mine near Glenrock, Wyo., for “an inordinate number of spills, leaks and other releases ... pond leaks, well casing failures and excursions.” The cleanup was projected to cost $150 million, four times the company’s bond.

    Below the Inyan Kara aquifer that Powertech wants to mine lies the Minnelusa aquifer, then the Madison, all vital to future life in the region. A study of risks to the Madison aquifer by three South Dakota School of Mines and Technology researchers concluded that “Water supplies for Rapid City ... and the surrounding suburban and rural areas are extremely vulnerable to contamination.”

    The DENR’s mission statement is clear — “protecting South Dakota’s environment and natural resources for today and tomorrow.” Unfortunately, our Legislature passed a law –– written by Powertech lobbyists –– that tied the hands of the DENR to do its job.

    If in situ uranium mining pollutes the water vital to life, tourism and ranching in the Southern Hills, we might know in a year or two, or perhaps only after Powertech is gone. That is a chance we cannot afford to take. The Powertech mine must be stopped.

    Jerry Wilson


  10. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.06.02

    When I lived in Newell a rancher in the southern part of Harding County took me to the Slim Buttes country east of highway 79 and south of highway 20. It was a beautiful land with wonderful stories. Occasionally we passed an open, big, hole in the ground. He told me they were a few of the many holes left by uranium miners. He said they continue to emit radiation and the company that dug them just left them open like that.

    I've been to Riley Pass northwest of Buffalo. It seems pretty normal . . . except for the unseen radiation wafting about. I didn't stay long.

  11. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.06.02

    I'm with Cory. Get the money upfront and put it in escrow so it won't go away.

  12. mike from iowa 2014.06.02

    So then Noem will apologize to whichever korporate monster has to pay upfront money for damage to the environment. Stands to reason if She is the only SoDak congresscritter. Then they go after Obama again?

  13. lesliengland 2014.06.02

    will powertech whoever (mining companys are know to have extremely complicated ownership diagrams because...) use explosives below the surface as a method to assist its fracking style operation?

  14. ken zimmerman 2014.09.19

    What ever happened to "Sodak uranium mining corp" ?

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