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Bob Mercer

MERCER: Powertech brings first big mining fight of century

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opinion Mitchell,South Dakota 57301
The Daily Republic
MERCER: Powertech brings first big mining fight of century
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

PIERRE -- The next citizen I meet who doesn't have anything at stake in Powertech's uranium project, and says she or he can't wait for work to start, will be the first one.


Nothing against Powertech. Nuclear power plants worldwide want uranium.

Or against the state Board of Water Management. A hearing starts Oct. 7 on the company's water permits.

Or against the state Board of Minerals and Environment. Sometime this fall the board will decide on the company's mining and other permits.

Nothing either, against the citizens who support the project, or the citizens who oppose it.

But there's nothing warm and fuzzy about uranium, or about most mining. It's hard, gritty work in a field where people learn from both successes and mistakes.

The old uranium sites down in Fall River County are a wasteland. The Superfund site in Lawrence County that was the Brohm gold mine, with its giant pit of acid water, is another example of man gone wrong.

What makes the Powertech proposal for Custer and Fall River counties seem downright spooky to some people is its method, called in situ mining.

It sounds perfect.

Other than well holes, the earth won't be permanently disturbed. Extra-oxygenated water will be pumped into the ground through those wells and then recovered.

The special water would dissolve the uranium. The uranium-laden solution will be pumped back to the surface and the uranium removed.

This approach will be new to South Dakota. There won't be man-made canyons left behind, hundreds of feet deep.

Everything is supposed to look natural on the surface when Powertech is done.

This will be the first big fight of the new century over mining in South Dakota. The final decisions rest with federal officials, because it's uranium.

But state permits are necessary, too.

The Board of Water Management seems to have taken a publicly acceptable course, with its plans for up to two weeks of hearing time in Rapid City in October.

The Board of Minerals and Environment hasn't fully set its plan yet.

The minerals board meets July 19-20 and will determine the dates and location for its permits hearing.

The shortcoming is that people face a June 14 deadline to decide how much they want to formally be involved in the mineral board hearing. They have until July 15 to change their minds. People have to make that decision -- known as an election of participation -- before they know for sure when and where the hearing is.

Their choices are three: 1. They can fully intervene and participate, similar to a court trial. 2. They can take a limited role by electing to deliver up to 15 minutes of sworn testimony immediately before the formal hearing. Or, 3. They can stay on the sideline and rely on what's already in the record from themselves and others. The dates Sept. 23-27 are floating around. That would allow about two months from the July meeting of the minerals board for all sides to get ready. As for location, will it be Pierre? Hot Springs and Custer are beautiful in early autumn.