National Guard holds off on training in grasslands amid uranium concerns
RAPID CITY (AP) -- The South Dakota National Guard has postponed plans for training exercises on federal grasslands in the Black Hills after an environmental group warned the military about radiation levels caused by uranium deposits.
Maj. Gen. Tim Reisch, adjutant general of the Guard, said Wednesday the group would hold off until it can be determined that radiation levels in the area do not pose health hazards to soldiers. The Guard was contacted by Defenders of the Black Hills coordinator Charmaine White Face about the possibility of contamination.
"I'm very happy they're not going to be there for another year," White Face said. "But that radiation is not going away."
Reisch told the media there's no indication based on previous air samples that radiation samples at the proposed training area would be above safety standards, but the state will take the necessary precautions.
The Guard leader said he appreciated the heads-up from Defenders of the Black Hills.
"Anybody who has a concern about safety and writes the governor, that's good stuff as far as I'm concerned," Reisch said. "I know there's nobody more concerned about the safety of the South Dakota National Guard than the governor and myself. So, we're going slow on this."
The Guard has been working for several years on plans to expand training locations from traditional Black Hills sites to include an area on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. The proposed training area would include about 800 acres in an arid, treeless terrain that would help simulate conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources took air samples at the proposed training site in September of 2010. The tests did not register a radiation threat. The Black Hills Group of the Sierra Club challenged the Guard's environmental assessment process, claiming it wasn't detailed enough and didn't consider the impacts of training maneuvers on the grasslands ecosystem and its wildlife.
Reisch said the grasslands environment would be useful in training for locations where the Guard could still be deployed, even though U.S. combat operations in Iraq have ended and the drawdown of forces from Afghanistan continues.
"I think based on the world situation and the fact that I think we'll have some presence in Afghanistan for future years, it's good to have options," he said. "Certainly, the Black Hills has been suited to what you might find in a Korean or European scenario. Other areas we might be called to could be more consistent with what you'd find out on the grasslands."