Fall River County voters say no to uranium mining

By: - November 9, 2022 12:27 am

Fall River residents voted to designate uranium mining as an unlawful nuisance in the county Tuesday.

With 3,530 registered voters casting their ballots, the initiated measure earned a majority with 56% of the vote.

The vote is the latest development in a 16-year saga. It’s been that long since a corporation called Powertech formed in South Dakota to pursue a uranium mine on the southwestern edge of the Black Hills, about a dozen miles northwest of Edgemont. Powertech is a subsidiary of Encore Energy, a Texas-based company that wants to sell uranium to nuclear power plants.

Susan Henderson is a rancher and longtime project opponent who launched the drive to put the question on the ballot. She fears the mine would contaminate the aquifers that provide water for her ranch.

Henderson was not immediately available for comment Tuesday night.

The basis of the petition is a state law authorizing county commissioners to declare and abate public nuisances outside of city limits.

At a special meeting in August, the county commissioners debated whether the ballot measure would be legally enforceable. Fall River County State’s Attorney Lance Russell told the commissioners that South Dakota mining laws give power to the state – not the county – to permit or reject uranium mining.

Ahead of the election, South Dakota Searchlight asked Mark Hollenbeck, a local rancher who doubles as Powertech’s project manager, whether Encore Energy executives would challenge the ballot measure in court if voters approve it

“That’s not my decision, but if it was an impediment, I assume they would,” Hollenbeck said.

The ballot issue is just one of many aspects of a long-running fight. The project’s license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and permits from the Environmental Protection Agency are tied up in administrative appeals and litigation brought by opponents. And the project still requires consideration by the federal Bureau of Land Management and the state of South Dakota.

Uranium was mined in the Edgemont area from the 1950s to the 1970s to support the nation’s buildup of Cold War nuclear weapons. Back then, strip-mining and tunneling were the typical methods of extraction, and many sites were not cleaned up or restored to natural conditions. Lax safety controls and poor regulatory oversight resulted in dangerous radiation exposure for some workers and residents.

Powertech is proposing a different method of mining called “in situ,” which would involve the development of a field of wells. Water drawn from local, underground sources would be treated with liquid oxygen and carbon dioxide, pumped underground to leach uranium from subterranean deposits, and then brought to the surface where the uranium would be processed. The water would be treated and reused, and ultimately disposed of by injecting it back underground.

Encore Energy has said it would spend about $32 million during the project’s first two years to get the mine up and running.

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Makenzie Huber
Makenzie Huber

Makenzie Huber is a lifelong South Dakotan whose work has won national and regional awards. She's spent five years as a journalist with experience reporting on workforce, development and business issues within the state.