USA: Investor report omits mention of Oglala Sioux legal battle


Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor

Date of publication: 
1 April 2015

EDGEMONT –– In releasing a “Preliminary Economic Assessment of the Dewey-Burdock Uranium ISR Project” on March 14, a company that wants to be the first to mine for uranium in South Dakota’s underground water table omitted any mention of the Oglala Sioux tribal government’s staunch legal battle against the proposal.

The company’s plans call for obtaining state water rights for an indefinite period of time for 9,000 gallons per minute of water from the Inyan Kara Aquifer and the Madison Aquifer, which is the source of municipal drinking water for largest population centers in southwestern South Dakota, including Rapid City, Spearfish and Hot Springs.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe and other opponents have been contesting the idea through formal administrative channels for six years, effectively blocking the company from procuring any of the federal, tribal, state or local permissions necessary to undertake what would be South Dakota’s first-ever uranium in situ recovery (ISR), or solution mining and on-site milling.

The assessment the company released to investors and the public recognizes that: “There is vocal, opposition to the project by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals,” noting, “This has created increased regulatory efforts and logistics for accommodating public involvement.”

It states that: “As with any uranium project in the U.S.A., there will undoubtedly be some social-political-environmental opposition to development.” However, it admits only that the proposal “has drawn attention from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and individuals in the general public.”

A Preliminary Economic Assessment is a requirement for any company that portends to conduct business related to mineral properties, if the business is to be listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX).

The company in this case is Azarga Uranium Corp., formed in the province of British Colombia, Canada, in October 2014, to absorb the British Virgin Islands-registered Azarga Resources Ltd. (owner of the Hong Kong-based Azarga Resources Lt.) and the Canada-based Powertech Uranium Corp., formerly held in large part by the Belgian nuclear power firm Société Belge de Combustibles Nucléaires Synatom SA, a subsidiary of a French-owned global utility giant Électricité de France (EDF).

The new Powertech, or Azarga Uranium Corp., established a head office in the Denver suburb of Greenwood Village, Colorado. Its Australian-born chairman and CEO, a major shareholder, is based in China. Other major shareholders are based in Australia and Singapore.

The company’s filing at the Toronto Stock Exchange tells observers and investors that Azarga Uranium Corp. has secured licensing for handling radioactive materials at the Dewey-Burdock site, located 50 miles west of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The document also claims all the rest of the permits it needs will be in place by the end of the year.

“The NRC license has been issued, the State of South Dakota large-scale mine permit has been recommended for approval. All major permits necessary for commencing construction are estimated to be approved by the fourth quarter of 2015,” it says.

The statement ignores the fact that a federal oversight panel of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board has set April 30 as a deadline to rule on the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s challenges to the NRC staff’s granting of a radioactive materials handling license.

“The license is only as good as the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board says it is, and that decision comes next month,” said Jeffrey Parsons, the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s attorney in the ASLB administrative hearings.

“Depending on the ruling that’s slated to come down by April 30, that license could be amended, revoked, or it could be ratified,” Parsons told the Native Sun News. “That’s the nature of the proceeding we’re in.”

The 147-page assessment was prepared at Azarga Corp.’s request by engineer Douglass H. Graves of Trec Inc., a Bozeman, Montana-based engineering and environmental management consultancy, and geologist Steven Cutler of Bozeman-Montana-based Roughstock Mining Services LLC.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe contends that “the NRC staff and applicant have yet to complete a competent cultural resources inventory or survey of the site, and have yet to design, plan for, or put in place any demonstrated effective mitigation measures to protect cultural resources there.”

According to the National Environmental Policy Act, a license cannot be issued until the cultural resources process is completed, due to the National Historic Preservation Act.

In order for staff to grant a license, the agency separated the required review of the project’s impacts on historic and cultural resources, and the tribe filed arguments against the separation.

“They’ve used this bifurcated tactic as a way to evade their duties under the National Environmental Protection Act,” Parsons said. The Oglala Sioux Tribe is among 23 tribal governments involved in required federal consultation on decisions about the preservation of the cultural and historic sites in the proposed mining and milling area.

The tribes insist on taking part in a survey of sacred sites on the entire property, but the company has only provided resources for non-Indian surveys of a much more limited geographic scope.

“These cultural resource issues are certainly serious, but equally serious are the groundwater contamination issues,” Parsons noted. The Oglala Sioux Tribe also contends that the would-be mining company should produce baseline water data for consideration in the permitting process.

The proposed solution mining would take place at the headwaters of the Cheyenne River, which drains the Pine Ridge and Cheyenne River Sioux Indian reservations before joining the Missouri upstream from other reservations.

Additional interveners in the ASLB case are the non-profit Owe Aku (Bring Back the Way), Black Hills Clean Water Alliance, and neighboring ranchers Susan Henderson and Dayton Hyde of the Wild Horse Sanctuary.

In addition to obtaining ASLB approval, project proponents have numerous other hurdles to cross.

At the urging of local people, the South Dakota Board of Minerals and Environment has suspended further hearings on the application until after federal hearings are completed for the large-scale mine permit, which the Azarga Uranium Corp. assessment mentions was “recommended” by staff.

Likewise under pressure from South Dakota residents, the state Water Management Board has suspended hearings pending the results of complaints filed at the federal level.

The federal EPA and Bureau of Land Management have yet to set hearing dates for public comments on water and other resource issues raised by the project.

A number of permits would also be necessary from Custer County, if the other jurisdictions were to approve the proposal, according to the Planning Department.

“They still have to get multiple other permits and licenses from the state DPA, and BLM, all of which are subject to fairly extensive processes, as well,” Parsons said.

In addition to site-specific hearings, the EPA has proposed new, stiffer regulations for groundwater protection in uranium solution mining nationwide. The comment period lasts until April 26.

Clean Water Alliance is urging citizens to request a public hearing in the vicinity of the proposed Dewey-Burdock operation, also close to Cameco Inc.’s Crow Butte area solution mines and mills south of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in northwest Nebraska.

To date, the hearings are set for Wyoming and Texas. Clean Water Alliance recommends requesting one in Chadron, Nebraska, which is close to the South Dakota border.

Requests can be addressed to: Ingrid Rosencrantz, Office of Radiation and Indoor Air, Radiation Protection Division, Mailcode 6608T, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20460; or Rosencrantz.ingrid [at] epa [dot] gov. The request should mention Docket ID Number EPA-HQ-OAR-2012-088.

(Contact Talli Nauman at talli.nauman [at] gmail [dot] com)