A panel for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in Rapid City this week for a three-day hearing on the licensing of a proposed uranium mine near Edgemont. But even before the hearing began, members of the panel traveled to Hot Springs, closer to the proposed mine, to take public comments on the controversial issue.
The NRC's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel got a preview of some of the issues to be discussed during a public meeting at the civic center in Hot Springs.
The key issues for consideration by the panel are water-pollution worries by project opponents, contentions by Native Americans that cultural resources aren't being properly considered and protected, and whether geological data Powertech Uranium has from previous uranium operations in the Edgemont area should be made public.
But the panel got warmed up by listening to public opinions on the perceived benefits and threats of injecting a water solution deep underground to extract uranium, in a process similar to fracking. Opponents argue that groundwater pollution is virtually guaranteed.
Jim Petersen of Rapid City said that despite assurances from Powertech that important aquifers will be protected, the very process is full of opportunities for underground leaks.
"It's a toxic witch's brew of radio-nuclei and heavy metals that's going to drive down gradient, forever," Petersen said.
Petersen and other project foes worry that underground fissures and thousands of old test holes in the project area northwest of Edgemont will allow escaped pollutants to contaminate ground water supplies.
"That means this is going to contaminate potable water down gradient year after year, forever," Petersen said.
Powertech officials contend that aquifers to be most affected by the mining operation are already degraded by natural pollutants. They say "mining" system of injection-extraction wells maintains a pressure that contains the injection solution and the uranium and other potential contaminants to the well field.
Edgemont Mayor Carl Shaw says he has faith in government regulators, Powertech officials and modern-mining techniques to protect the groundwater supplies.
"I feel it's a safe project. They're doing the same thing in Nebraska and Wyoming," Shaw said. "I don't see why we can't do it in South Dakota."
Shaw also adds that Edgemont needs the economic boost the uranium mining could bring.
"It would greatly increase our tax base, bring more people into the community and help with our school district, city, even our county," he said.
Depending, of course, on what the NRC decides.
The NRC staff has given a tentative go-ahead to the project by issuing what amounts to a preliminary license. That has been contested by project opponents, who will make their arguments during the hearings this week.
The panel is expected to make its decision on the issue by mid-November. But that ruling could be appealed to the full NRC.