For 50 years, the un-reclaimed uranium mines on U.S. Forest Service land near Buffalo in northwest South Dakota have damaged the environment and threatened public health. But change is coming to the North Cave Hills. A federal court settlement might finally clean up the mess.
Look one way up near Riley Pass and it takes your breath away. Look the other and it makes you wonder whether it's safe to breathe at all.
There's danger on the land, in the water and sometimes in the air. It's an odd mix of environmental beauty of the North Cave Hills and the beast of pollution allowed to sit, spread and threaten for half a century.
Kurt Hansen knows this sad story up close. He is district ranger of the Sioux Ranger District on the Custer-Gallatin National Forest.
Part of his job is to help manage the mess left at long-abandoned uranium mines near Ludlow, a tiny Harding County hamlet along U.S. Highway 85 between Buffalo and the North Dakota line. The mine sites are scattered across an otherwise-inspiring island of elevated forest looming above the grasslands of Harding County.
"What happened up above was some strip mining," Hansen said. "There was a coal seam just above the bedrock layer. There was some strip mining that went on in the late '50s and the early 1960s, because of the uranium that was in those coal seams. They were getting after that, hauling it off, taking it somewhere else to make fuel for nuclear weapons."
The miners for Kerr-McGee weren't doing much about the contaminated ground they left behind.
"And there was no reclamation standards at that time, for any of the mining that went on. None of the topsoil was saved. There was no plan in place to do anything. And so when they were done mining they just left and walked away, what you see behind us right now. And it's been running down the hill essentially since 1964, when the mining operations ceased," Hansen said.
Soon after the mines closed, the Forest Service rebuilt part of the road to Riley Pass because of eroding spoils. Erosion control has continued on a piecemeal basis. In the 1970s, Kerr-McGee built dikes and dams to catch eroding soil and its contaminants. The Forest Service added more basins in the 1980s and still uses them to limit the flow of pollutants onto private lands downstream.
"Essentially we're capturing the runoff from those bare bluffs up behind the pond, capturing that and holding it here, letting some of those contaminated sediments settle out into this pond, with the thought that what goes through the tube back here and drains out down the drainage is a little cleaner than when it first came off of those slopes back there," Hansen said.
The process helps. So does mine-waste disposal work paid for with federal funds. A much-bigger fix is coming, however. A federal court settlement with the Kerr-McGee Corporation and its corporate parent, Anadarko Petroleum, set aside $4.4 billion for environmental cleanup at contaminated sites around the nation. Reclamation of the mines in the North Cave Hills could benefit from a pool of almost $180 million. It's a mammoth cleanup task that's long overdue, but finally there will be money to pay for it.
Contaminants include arsenic, radium and uranium. Research indicates unacceptable cancer risks around the mining zone to ranchers operating on federal grazing leases and to recreational hunters. It also indicates elevated risks for Native Americans who visit less frequently on spiritual quests.
Seventy-one-year-old rancher Bill Rotenberger lives on a ranch near the Hills and operates a Forest Service grazing lease. He's used to the mine waste. And while he's in the higher-risk group for health effects, he wonders what that means.
"How do we know? How do you quantitatively decide whether any health issues you have is a result of this?" Rotenberger said.
Some things are certain. He likes smaller-scale reclamation work by the Forest Service. And he loves living in a place that might make others uneasy.
"Very, very productive. And we've got lots of water. Lots of protection. Lots of scenery," Rotenberger said. "It's a nice spot, a really nice spot."
Depending, of course, on which way you look.
The settlement money will pay for construction crews to remove polluted mining waste and bury it in pits that will be covered with several feet of dirt and planted with grass. The
funds could also allow the Forest Service to work with the EPA on nearby private land.