RAPID CITY, South Dakota — A licensing board of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission tasked with approving a South Dakota uranium mine questioned expert witnesses Tuesday to determine whether commission staff members adequately consulted Native Americans and met legal requirements for protecting historical and cultural resources before signing off on the mine.
The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board held the first of its three-day hearings in Rapid City in a ballroom of the historic Hotel Alex Johnson that has been transformed into a federal courtroom for the week.
Tuesday's hearings focused primarily on two contentions from the Oglala Sioux Tribe and a group of concerned parties, or "consolidated intervenors."
Members of the tribe are challenging a license granted to Powertech Uranium Corp. for its proposed Dewey-Burdock uranium mine. They're challenging on the grounds that tribal governments were not adequately consulted in cultural and historical surveys performed on the proposed site and sufficient studies weren't performed to ensure cultural artifacts are preserved as required by law.
The tribe and the intervenors want previous decisions allowing for a Powertech license to be remanded. They also seek more intensive studies to be done before mining can begin.
Powertech plans to use a method known as in-situ uranium 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.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff members testified Tuesday that they had done their due diligence compiling environmental surveys, saying they consulted with many Native American tribes for input and that ultimately several Sioux tribes didn't end up participating in the study despite being asked for input.
"The NRC staff maintains that it went to the great lengths to address tribal cultural issues and in particular was praised by the advisory committee on historic preservation for the lengths to which it went on these matters," said Eliot Brenner, the lead spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Jeff Parsons, one of the attorneys for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said the tribe was working with NRC staffers but that the commission went ahead without them.
"(The tribes) wanted a more active role," he said. "They wanted it done in a way that incorporated all the tribes that had an interest. And they were working toward that and were intent on bridging that gap."
He said the Oglala Sioux Tribe is opposed to the uranium mine as a whole but wants to make sure its historical and cultural artifacts are protected if the project moves forward. Parsons added that while the planned mining method is considered less destructive than open pit mining "that doesn't mean that it's not going to impact cultural resources."
The licensing board will take all the information gathered this week and determine at a later date whether the contentions from the intervenors are valid and more studies need to be done.
If the board allows Powertech to move forward, the mining company still will need approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The state Board of Minerals and Environment and state Water Management Board suspended hearings late last year until the federal agencies make decisions.
The board began to discuss Tuesday whether the mining company must divulge hydrological data sought by opponents — Powertech does not believe it is relevant to the NRC permit process — but ran out of time. Board members will resume that discussion Wednesday, while also covering other issues raised by opponents who say the mine could pollute or drain the region's aquifers.