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Uranium issue contaminates politics on Pine Ridge

PINE RIDGE, S.D. - Possible uranium exploration and mining on the Pine Ridge Reservation has caused a furor within the political structure of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and pits treaty supporters, or traditionals, against the IRA government, especially the OST president.

A group of seven individuals and organizations recently filed impeachment proceedings against President John Yellow Bird Steele because, according to the complaint, he had cooperated with the Native American Energy Group of Forest Hills, N.Y., to promote uranium exploration on Pine Ridge. Steele has denied those allegations.

The tribal council rejected the impeachment complaint and exonerated Steele by a 14 - 1 vote. Steele asserts that he opposes any uranium mining or exploration activity on the reservation.

The official NAEG position is that it had not made a formal proposal to the tribe and that it has never mined uranium. Information supplied by the company, however, indicates that it is equipped for uranium exploration.

The company's position was of little concern to those opposed to even the planning of uranium exploration on or near the reservation. Tribal Judge Lisa Adams, at the request of the Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council and supporters, signed an order that expelled the NAEG from the reservation. The company had rented a facility and made plans to explore for uranium with the intent of mining in the future, the complaint said. An appeal is expected.

NAEG claims it has an agreement with a Canadian company to build housing on Pine Ridge, and mining is not part of their plans.

The tribal council passed OST Resolution 07-0154 prohibiting any exploration or mining of uranium on the reservation. The resolution further prevents the company from negotiating with the OST or any tribal member or land owners.

The Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council, headed by elders Oliver Red Cloud and Floyd Hand, had also passed resolutions opposing any uranium activity on the reservation. The treaty council is not connected to the tribal government.

The NAEG, according to its Web site, takes over old, abandoned oil fields and develops them for economic reasons to benefit host reservations. The company has an operation located on the Fort Peck Reservation.

It also claims to be negotiating for land leases to extract coal bed methane in the Powder River basin of Wyoming and Montana. That would involve two reservations, the Crow and Northern Cheyenne. The Northern Cheyenne tribal members are opposed to any mining on their lands and have launched an effort to stop coal bed methane mining in the Powder River Basin.

The Oglala Band of the Black Hills Sioux Treaty Council has also opposed any mining or exploration within the homeland boundaries created by the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie treaties.

Uranium mining has escalated over the past few years and today the price has tripled over what it was a decade ago, enticing mining companies to revisit areas that had previously produced the radioactive ore.

South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming are states where uranium mining had previously taken place; this time, however, the technique is new. Instead of removing the surface materials to expose the ore, uranium, by what the industry claims is a more environmentally safe method, is leached out of the ground by a method called in situ leach mining.

The largest threat to any contamination to Pine Ridge may come from testing some 50 miles west. This area is located within the original treaty land near Edgemont. Powertech Uranium Corp., based in Vancouver, British Columbia, was given court permission to drill 155 test holes in the area. Uranium mining in South Dakota is not restricted by law.

Groups that oppose the drilling claim contamination of the ground water and aquifer is not worth the risk. DENR admits there is a risk of contamination, mostly, they claim, from high levels of arsenic and selenium that are already present in the ground.

In situ leach mining is accomplished by forcing a special solution through wells into the area where the uranium is located. The solution then blends with the ore and is pumped back to the surface through extraction wells.

Test results of drinking and ground water in the northwestern region of Pine Ridge near Red Shirt Table has shown contamination. Uranium mining took place in the 1970s and earlier in the area.

Officials of the NAEG had attempted to negotiate the testing of ground water on Pine Ridge, only to have public resistance and tribal council disapproval. The company said their presence on the reservation was to create housing and possibly develop a solar panel factory.