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Oglala Sioux Win Consultation Over Uranium Mine in South Dakota

Oglala Sioux and other uranium-mine opponents in South Dakota win consultation victory.
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Oglala Sioux and other opponents of a proposed uranium mine in South Dakota won a reprieve on April 30 when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) ruled that Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff had not consulted adequately with tribes to protect cultural sites over a proposal by Powertech Uranium Corp. (now Azarga Uranium).

In addition, the ASLB said the company needed to pay closer attention to the potential for water contamination from abandoned, preexisting bore holes.

This puts the Dewey-Burdock uranium mine, proposed for Fall River and Custer Counties in southwestern South Dakota, on hold for the time being while Azarga Uranium refines its proposal.

Opponents of the mining proposal called it a victory, while a company executive said it gave Azarga information it needs to move forward.

“As we have argued from the start of this process over five years ago, Powertech/Azarga and the NRC staff have never conducted an adequate review of impacts to cultural resources, and also did not impose sufficient controls to protect aquifers from contamination through historic drill holes,” said Jeffrey Parsons, attorney for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, in a statement upon the ruling. “The Board ruling today confirms these major flaws in the company’s analysis.”

Debra White Plume of Owe Aku/Bring Back the Way called it a “battle victory in the multilayered, protracted paper war to protect sacred water and cultural and sacred places from extractive industries that intend to operate without meaningful regulation and oversight."

The board has amended the language of the license it had previously granted to the company to include requirements that Azarga address issues with boreholes existing from previous attempts by prior owners to explore for uranium deposits at the Southern Black Hills site, the Black Hills Pioneer reported. While Azarga had committed to plugging and mitigating these holes, the license did not contain language requiring them to do so, the Black Hills Pioneer said.

Where the Oglala Sioux—one of several intervenors in the case—won is in two components of the ruling. One said that the Dewey-Burdock Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (FSEIS) did not address potential effects of the mine on American Indian cultural, religious and historic resources, and the other component held that the NRC did not adequately consult with affected tribes as is mandated under federal law.

“The environmental documents do not satisfy the requirements of the NEPA, as they do not adequately address Sioux tribal cultural, historic and religious resources,” the ASLB said in its decision. “The NRC Staff can remedy this deficiency in the Record of Decision in this proceeding by promptly initiating a government-to-government consultation with the Oglala Sioux Tribe to identify any adverse effects to cultural, historic or religious sites of significance to the Oglala Sioux Tribe which may be impacted by the Powertech Dewey-Burdock project, and to adopt measures to mitigate such adverse effects, as necessary.”

The ASLB also said that consultation is lacking.

“Meaningful consultation as required by statute has not occurred,” the ASLB said. “The NRC Staff can remedy this deficiency in the Record of Decision in this proceeding by promptly initiating a government-to-government consultation with the Oglala Sioux Tribe to identify any adverse effects to cultural, historic or religious sites of significance to the Oglala Sioux Tribe which may be impacted by the Powertech Dewey-Burdock project, and to adopt measures to mitigate such adverse effects, as necessary.”

Azarga chief operating officer John Mays called the ruling a victory for his company insofar as it designated the NRC as the party that had failed to consult, not the company. He also said it gives the company information it needs in order to move the project along.

“We’re very pleased,” he told the Black Hills Pioneer, referring to the mine’s environmental assessment. “A lot of work went into it, and it’s good to see the decision that came out.”

The project needs several other approvals besides this one before moving forward, the Black Hills Pioneer pointed out, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the South Dakota Board of Minerals and Development as well as the state’s Water Management Board.