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White Face: We need to learn more about in situ leach uranium mining

This push to immediately jump into in situ leach uranium mining should cause everyone in the Dakota region, including Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana, to say, ''Slow down! Let's take a deeper look at this.'' A hard look needs to be taken, particularly when the companies coming in are from Canada. Remember, South Dakota taxpayers are still paying for the cleanup of that abandoned open cut gold mine in the Black Hills that was deserted by a Canadian company. That's not to say all companies from Canada are bad, but a former refrigerator company that is jumping into uranium mining makes one wonder what their intentions are.

The uranium mining companies that want to stick long pipes deep into the ground in the Black Hills and all around this region keep saying their processes will not hurt the aquifers. They say the uranium is in a confined area so the aquifers won't be contaminated with the poison they will put down there to dissolve the uranium. They say the wastes will be put back deep in the ground. The poison they put in, mixed with whatever dissolved besides the uranium, will be put back in the ground. These wastes have been exposed to nuclear radiation just by their exposure to uranium and will still contain some radioactive products or properties. These radioactive wastes will be pushed back into the ground in long pipes. Where the wastes will go once they are deep in the ground is the question.

Since my mind is from Missouri, I had to test this out; to see if something in a confined area, if punctured, wouldn't leak into the surrounding area. I took an impermeable container, in this case a resealable plastic baggie containing food coloring, and put it in a glass of water. I punctured it once with a needle, only once. Yup. The impermeable layer punctured by a needle bled food coloring all over inside the glass of water. Maybe that's why, in places all over the world where in situ leach mining has been allowed, the aquifers are permanently destroyed.

In Konigstein, Germany, an underground uranium mine was changed to an in situ leach mine and finally stopped in 1990. There is still 1.9 million cubic meters of contaminated water within the mining zone and 850 million liters in the recovery plant. The mines are within the aquifer that supplies water for the city of Dresden. In Straz pod Ralskem, Czech Republic, the contaminated groundwater escaped outside the mining zone both horizontally and vertically extending over an area of about 15 square miles.

After an aquifer was destroyed in Goliad, Texas, the state Legislature just lowered the water standards so the uranium company could say they didn't do anything wrong. Quoting Gavin Mudd for The Sustainable Energy and Anti-Uranium Service Inc.: ''The only site where ISL has been trialed (with sulfuric acid) at a small field scale is at Casper in Wyoming, America. A detailed review by the Wyoming and federal environmental regulators of the trial proved to be a damning indictment of the ISL technique, as the groundwater of the site was not rehabilitated to pre-trial quality and standards had to be relaxed in order to consider the area restored. At the Irigary ISL mine also in Wyoming, there were repeated problems of solutions escaping, site accidents and shut downs. The mine was abandoned in 1981 by the Wyoming Mineral Corporation (subsidiary of Westinghouse).''

They must do things differently in Texas and Wyoming. Not like South Dakota, where our annual rainfall makes us prize all the water we can get whether it's underground or on the surface. I sincerely hope the South Dakota Legislature remembers this and doesn't lower the groundwater standards in the future to meet the needs of uranium mining companies after they poison the aquifers.

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We also prize artesian springs. Because of all the uplifts in this region, it is not unusual to find that an aquifer that is 600 feet down in some place will be trickling out its water in another. The Lakota formation, for example, which happens to lie within the Inyan Kara aquifer and which is slated for in situ leach mining, happens to peek out in a couple of artesian springs that empty into the Cheyenne River. How many ranchers' cattle and horses drink from that river? How many deer, antelope, elk, geese, fish, turtles and frogs also drink or live in that river?

A few years ago, when heap leach mining for gold was the fad, former South Dakota Gov. George Mickelson placed a moratorium on mining until the issue could be studied. When the moratorium was lifted, heap leach mining continued and still proved to be harmful to the water. A gold mine was abandoned, leaving South Dakotans to pick up the tab, and the runoff ditch still doesn't even grow moss.

If nuclear energy is the way to go, then the price of uranium will stay high. There are already too many abandoned surface uranium mines in South Dakota and Wyoming that will cost a small country's budget to clean up. How do you clean up an aquifer? You don't. Monitor wells only tell you how far out the pollution goes. They don't stop it.

The Cheyenne River is already polluted by uranium coming from Wyoming. Let's not add to that problem by polluting the aquifers that empty into that poor river as well. It would be in the best interest of South Dakota if Gov. Mike Rounds would institute a moratorium on all uranium mining in the state, and especially in situ leach mining, until it can be proven that this kind of mining is safe to all things. Right now, my mind is still from Missouri.

Charmaine White Face, Zumila Wobaga, is coordinator for Defenders of the Black Hills. She is a former science and biology instructor, author and political commentator. White Face may be reached at