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Gold mining proposal for Black Hills creek opens old wounds

RAPID CITY (AP) -- Some South Dakota residents are nervous about a Canadian-based company's plan to to mine gold along a stretch of a Black Hills river once so polluted it was listed as a federal Superfund site.

Goldstake Explorations of Oakville, Ontario, and a Black Hills-based affiliate have received a state permit to begin exploration work next month along Whitewood Creek. Some environmentalists worry that the plan for the 18-milelong Superfund site will pollute the river.

"It's just somebody else coming in, wanting to make a quick buck on gold mining and assuring us that everything will be OK," said Randy Heckenlaible, a longtime mining adversary and community organizer for ACTion for the Environment. "When somebody says a gold-mining operation like this will be just fine, that should immediately raise a red flag."

Company officials told the Rapid City Journal the permit calls for workers to take care of the land and reclaim the property when the work is done.

"We will need a large-scale mining permit," said Kathryn Johnson, a consultant serving as project manager. "And the requirements of that permit are that there's no degradation of the environment or health of the environment and that after-mining reclamation is required to ensure there's no long-term issue."

The Superfund site was removed from a federal priority list in 1996 after extensive cleanup of the creek and removal of tons of arsenic-contaminated material near homes and other points of human activity. It is still monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency.

There has been interest in mining Whitewood Creek mine tailings and the residual gold they contain for decades, but it has never come to fruition.

Guy M. Balo, a rancher with land in the Superfund site, said the Goldstake plan offers not only direct payments, but a chance to clean up ore residue that makes his operation less productive.

"It'll be more productive ground, and we'll be able to use it better. Some of it now is just bare sand," he said.

The creek now supports fish life, including wild brown trout in its colder portions. A five-year review conducted by the EPA last year concluded that the Superfund site is "protective of human health and the environment," though additional long-term protections are still planned.

Mike Cepak, a mining regulation specialist with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Pierre, said a plan to mine for gold in residue left at a Superfund site is like no other he can remember in the state. He said South Dakota will be active in assuring that if the mining proceeds, it will not release pollutants into Whitewood Creek, a watershed that leads to the Missouri River.

"This captures our interest on a couple of different levels. One is that it's just an interesting plan," Cepak said. "The other is that, if it moves forward, what are the environmental consequences?"