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The Canyon Debate

September 23, 2012, 9:55 PM by Derek Olson

The Canyon Debate

While people may flock to Spearfish Canyon this time of year to see its majestic colors, the area also has a rich history of mining dating back to the 1870s. 

Now, the Deadwood Standard Project is proposing a new surface mine near the tourist hot spot.

"It is rare when an area like ours, which is predominately agriculture and tourism, basically tourism, has the opportunity to create 250 high-paying jobs," Deadwood-Lead Economic Development Corporation's executive director Chuck Turbiville said.

"It's part of our culture and it's built beautiful things here in the Hills and provided jobs for thousands of people for, well, 150 years," Spearfish Canyon Owners Association board member Roberta Noel said.

The mine would be located above limestone cliffs in the canyon.  Supporters say it's a common sense way to bring more economic development to the area.  But opponents say the risk to the canyon is just too great.

"It's a very fragile piece of ground and the limestone cliffs are a magnificent part of it," Noel said.

"They have a legitimate concern because Spearfish Canyon is a very special place to South Dakotans and even transposed South Dakotans like myself," mining expert Karl Burke said.

Burke has been involved in mining for more than three decades.  He has upper-level experience at mines in three-different continents, including Homestake. He claims to have no stake in the Deadwood Standard Project, but is familiar with the proposal.

"The geology is unique. The chemistry of the ore is unique. The processing is fairly straightforward," Burke said.

The company would remove ore from the land above the canyon wall in a surface mining operation.

"It's sort of like digging a trench, digging a trench next to it, covering the first trench, bringing in your topsoil and re-vegetating it," Burke said.

Along with jobs, the project's advocates claim the mine would also bring millions in new tax revenue.

"The property taxes yearly are going to be $500,000 for Lawrence County.  That's huge," Turbiville said.

But many in the canyon are concerned about long-term damage to their precious natural resources.

"The price of gold goes up and down and the history in these Hills says that when the price goes down the investors flee.  And this canyon is too beautiful to be treated that way," Noel said.

That's something the new mine will address.

"There are a number of old mining sites where they walked away.  They didn't reclaim anything.  As the Deadwood Standard proceeds through this area they're going to be reclaiming this area," Turbiville said.

The project also plans on using concrete-lined and covered vats to reduce the possibility of water and soil contamination.

"It's a very good project for mining with minimum potential environmental impact," Burke said.

But many in the canyon are skeptical.

"Chemical spills are just part of mining. It happens all the time and because they claim this is new technology they've not given us any proof as to how that technology has made any difference elsewhere," Noel said.

After strong debate at a public meeting this past August, the Lawrence County Commission decided to defer a vote on the mine's approval until after the state takes a look.

"I was disappointed.  I felt that they should've acted but now we have to wait 14 months," Turbiville said.

"It came down, I believe, to the USGS statement that a drop of this little piece of water works its way down through the limestone.  It's just common sense," Noel said.

In the meantime, the debate isn't likely to slow down.

"Beautiful sights, the streams, the fishing, the hiking, things that we fear might be lost or devalued if mining would come to the canyon," Noel said.

"We have an opportunity to create a large number of high-paying jobs and we need to take advantage of that," Turbiville said.

The State Department of Environment and Natural Resources is currently reviewing the Deadwood Standard Project.  It's expected to be more than a yearlong process.

Mining would take place on just more than 120 acres and would be expected to last for eight years.

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