PIERRE, S.D. — Federal and state agencies are on the cusp of deciding the fate of a long-debated uranium mine in southwestern South Dakota that would produce about 1 million pounds of uranium oxide annually for the next two decades.
The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission has recommended that a license be granted for Powertech Uranium Corp.’s proposed Dewey-Burdock project near Edgemont on the condition that a separate safety review doesn’t reverse such a conclusion. The NRC’s target for a final decision is June 2013.
The proposed mining area is about 13 miles northwest of Edgemont, close to the Black Hills National Forest, and would cover about 16.5 square miles. The mine would employ about 250 people during construction and about 150 once operational.
But the federal license isn’t the only hurdle Powertech must clear. It also has applied for three state permits — one mining and two water rights. Officials of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources expect to hold public hearings on the applications next spring.
It’s been more than four years since the mining proposal was first introduced with the goal of becoming operational by 2011. Despite opposition from Native Americans and environmental groups, the state in 2008 agreed to let the uranium producer drill nearly 200 exploratory holes.
Powertech — a Canadian company whose U.S. arm is overseeing the Edgemont project — plans to use in-situ recovery, which would pump groundwater fortified with oxygen and carbon dioxide into the underground ore deposits to dissolve the uranium. The water would be pumped back to the surface, where the uranium would be extracted and sold to nuclear power plants.
Lilias Jarding of the Clean Water Alliance, a Black Hills group that opposes the mine, said similar operations never have been done safely because they leave behind too much of the mined mineral. She expects residents in the area, along with other environmental organizations, to intervene in the permitting cases.
“The major consequences are water contamination and water use,” Jarding said, noting that Powertech would use 47 billion gallons of water over a 10-year period. “It’s a huge amount of water, and people really need to sit up and take notice of this one.”
But Mark Hollenbeck, Powertech’s project manager, said he’s confident the agencies reviewing the applications will find the proposed mine can be operated within regulations and without harm to the environment.
“There are volumes and volumes and volumes of technical data that back up this permit application,” said Hollenbeck, who added that the company hopes to receive all permits and licenses soon so work can begin about a year from now.
The state’s review is limited, due to a law passed by the Legislature in 2011 that prevents the Department of Environment and Natural Resources from duplicating federal regulation of underground injection wells and in-situ mining.
Mike Cepac, an engineering manager with the state minerals and mining program, said the Board of Minerals and Environment will mostly look at the surface effects of the operation. A hearing on the mining permit is unlikely before April, he said.
The state Water Rights Program staff has recommended that the Water Management Board approve Powertech’s applications for two permits to use underground water because it appears the water is available, can be used without illegally impairing existing water rights held by others and is beneficial and in the public interest.
A public hearing has been set for Dec. 5, the office said, but is expected to be delayed until spring.
The NRC said it expects a formal notice of its draft environmental report will be published Friday, and public comments will be accepted for 45 days.
Stephen Cohen, team leader for facility licensing with the NRC, said a final version of the study will likely be issued in early 2013, clearing the way for completing of the separate safety evaluation report.
In addition, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is considering Powertech’s application for permits related to injecting water underground in the mining process.
The uranium market dropped after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that severely damaged a nuclear power plant, Powertech’s Hollenbeck said, but the market is recovering.
“I think long-term, nuclear power is here to stay as the only truly large-scale carbon-free electrical power production we have,” Hollenbeck said.