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Uranium Fight Goes On Despite Hearing Delays

December 10, 2013, 10:20 PM by Kevin Woster

Uranium Fight Goes On Despite Hearing Delays

From a jagged cliff above the Cheyenne River, wild horse rancher Dayton Hyde celebrates the past and worries about the future.

"You find dinosaur bones and all sorts of things on this place, it should be protected." Hyde said.

As founder and operator of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, Hyde lives to protect hundreds of horses on his 13,000-acre ranch southwest of Hot Springs. But he frets more these days about the land and water.

He is part of a coalition fighting a proposed uranium mine by a Canada-based company Powertech Uranium northwest of Edgemont. The location is more than 20 miles away, but it's near the Cheyenne River, which snakes through Hyde's property and sits on top an aquifer he fears will be in jeopardy if the mining operation is approved.

"Western South Dakota makes its living with tourism and livestock and you're going to have neither here if that aquifer is polluted," Hyde said.

Edgemont rancher and engineer Mark Hollenbeck says polluting the river or the aquifer is the last thing he wants to do. Standing near un-reclaimed uranium pits not far from the proposed mine site about 15 miles northwest of Edgemont, he pledges a different environmental future if this mine is permitted.

"This is what the technology used a half a century ago was. It was open-pit mining with no reclamation standards.  And this is not how we are going to be doing our project." Hollenbeck said.

The proposed mine would involve a system of wells that inject an oxygenated solution into seams of uranium 300 to 800 feet underground. That solution would then be extracted, along with uranium particles it carries.

Hollenbeck says uranium doesn't travel far without oxygen. And without the oxygen-rich fluids pumped into the seams under pressure and extracted in a way that pulls the solution toward recovery wells, uranium particles barely move at all. So Hyde and his water supply are safe from damage by the project.

"There's no way possible that we can affect Mr. Hyde's or anybody else's wells that are in another part of the Black Hills or anywhere else," Hollenbeck said.

Others aren't so sure. One of them is Rapid City Mayor Sam Kooiker, who has joined members of the Rapid City Council in expressing concern to state and federal environmental officials about the project's potential impact on the city's water supply.

Kooiker isn't comforted by the 85-mile buffer between Rapid City and Edgemont or by Hollenbeck's assurances.

"We have people that are knowledgeable that are concerned about the impact of this on the city's water supply and indeed on the city's water supply for the entire central and southern Black Hills." Kooiker said.

Kooiker says his worries are shared by the city engineering staff and by people throughout the community.

"I would say that this ranks as one of the top several issues of, maybe the top five issues, of my time in city government, in terms of the level of engagement in the community," Kooiker said.

The engagement is different in Edgemont, where Mayor Carl Shaw worries about a stagnant economy and a lack of jobs for the town and its 770 residents.

"It would help the community, possibly draw more people into town, help our tax base of our school district. I think the majority of the people are in favor of it." Shaw said.

Shaw said his own support for the project is based in science.

"I've read the reports that the state has put out. And I trust the state people," Shaw said.

The staff of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources recommended approval of state permits for the operation. But after initial public hearings, two state boards with the authority to reject or grant water and mining permits are waiting for the federal officials to act. That could still be months away.

After almost seven years of work on the permits, Hollenbeck is hoping to get them all approved by next year. Opponents will do their best to fight that.

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