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Guest Column: Winegar on Uranium Mining in Black Hills

Sierra Club SD political chair Mark Winegar has been paying close attention to the EPA’s Black Hills hearings on the Azarga/Powertech uranium mining plan. Winegar forwards his thoughts, including testimony he submitted on Monday to the EPA:

Mark Winegar
Mark Winegar

I testified on May 8 at the EPA’s hearing in opposition to a proposal to allow a Chinese company to drill 8 bore holes in the Black Hills on behalf of the Sierra Club. The drilling would occur in Custer and Fall River Counties. I want to share my testimony with you along with some extra thoughts that have occurred to me since then.

“EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment. We are here today to discuss allowing a foreign-owned corporation to mine for uranium and to drill eight bore holes.

“There are already over 15,000 abandoned uranium mines in 15 Western states. 75% of these are on federal and tribal lands. 10 million people live within 50 miles of an abandoned uranium mine. No existing federal law requires the cleanup of these hazardous waste sites. Most of these abandoned uranium mines where established under the general mining law of 1872 and remain dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.

“The public health threat they pose grows greater the longer they are left abandoned. This threat to our health is invisible. It seeps into our water. It contaminates our livestock. It is carried in the wind for hundreds of miles and there is no dose of radiation that is harmless.

“Listen to these good people here today and work to clean up every abandoned uranium mine in the nation before considering a new one.”

I believe Judge Sutton and the EPA staff are sincerely concerned about sound environmental practices but they are part of a larger system controlled by corporations and billionaires and the politicians they support with large campaign donations. The appointment of Scott Pruitt as EPA Administrator makes the situation more problematic.

Let us hope for common sense in this decision but that seems to be a very rare commodity these days [Mark Winegar, e-mail to Dakota Free Press, 2017.05.10].

My casual Googling produces no clear signals on where Trump’s EPA chief Pruitt stands on uranium mining or nuclear power. In 2014, Pruitt co-authored an editorial griping about federal mandates to use more nuclear power. But we should expect an Administration obsessed with mining jobs to leap at the chance to authorize Azarga to put people to work mining uranium in the Black Hills.

Related: Azarga/Powertech consultant Mark Hollenbeck has said the Dewey-Burdock mining project would create 100 jobs. Azarga estimates those jobs at the Dewey-Burdock site would last for sixteen years. Azarga’s 2015 preliminary economic assessment says uranium production would take place for only twelve years (see p. 120).


  1. mike from iowa 2017-05-11 08:56

    Out of curiosity, who is on the hook for uranium related diseases after the mine has run its course?

  2. mike from iowa 2017-05-11 08:57

    ps would this uranium be part of the 20% of known reserves Russia bought but can’t export?

  3. Robert McTaggart 2017-05-11 10:30

    Our official policy is that there is no dose of radiation that is harmless. This is based on a risk analysis of high doses of radiation, which clearly shows that the risk of various diseases occurring is linearly-related to the radiation dose (i.e. the amount of energy) that is absorbed.

    That risk analysis does not mean that if you get a high dose, you will get cancer. It means that large samples of people exposed to higher doses should have more cancers than large samples of people exposed to smaller doses.

    We have extrapolated that linear curve down to lower doses to use in our radiation safety practices, without any formal basis for the biological damage or biological repair at low doses. That is the linear-no-threshold hypothesis. Hormesis, threshold effect, and even linear-no-threshold (LNT) models all have their champions at lower doses.

    It is clear that if the linear-no-threshold hypothesis does not hold at lower doses, many of the costs incurred by the nuclear industry in satisfying LNT-based regulations would be reduced. Which would mean nuclear would be more competitive upfront.

    I agree with Mark that cleaning up all the previous uranium mining sites is a good idea, but nobody wants to pay for it. Plus, where are you going to isolate the wastes that are collected, and who is going to agree to accept or process those wastes? We cannot get agreement on testing a borehole for potential storage of pre-packaged radioactive wastes, or recycling all the uranium in spent fuel, so the burial of tons of tailings in a new location appears to be problematic. I would welcome Mark’s ideas in that regard.

    I don’t know why one couldn’t design a facility to process the tailings and extract what uranium is in there (so you could consume it in a reactor to get rid of it) but cost is likely the primary factor. Those tailings are likely different than what ISR is dealing with, so water/carbon dioxide may not be enough to release the uranium from the tailings matrix. But green chemistry may still hold some hope in this regard.

  4. jerry 2017-05-11 11:00

    North Carolina like South Dakota, supported the white russian in the white house. See what it gets you? When there is a bore hole or some other corrupted form of pollution, South Dakota will get squat. If there is a so called Act of God, like a flood or blizzard or tornado, the trumpers will say that God did it so God can pay for it.

  5. Robert McTaggart 2017-05-11 14:16

    Regarding nuclear energy…

    “If you really care about this environment that we live in — and I think the vast majority of the people in the country and the world do — then you need to be a supporter of this amazingly clean, resilient, safe, reliable source of energy,” Perry said during a news conference.

    Regarding nuclear waste….

    “I think it’s really important that we no longer continue to kick the can down the road,” he said. “There are too many places in America and American lives and the health of our citizens are in jeopardy because the federal government has failed to respond appropriately in removing this waste in a timely way.”

  6. Linsey 2017-05-11 20:27

    Uranium and other radioactive toxic heavy metals have both a radiologic as well as a chemical/ biochemical toxicity that are independent of each other. This is important in assessing total true toxicology of an exposure.

  7. Robert McTaggart 2017-05-12 08:50

    I agree that you cannot forget the chemical effects when assessing the impact of the radionuclides, but I wouldn’t say they are exactly independent of each other.

    Radioactivity of a nuclide depends on the nuclear structure…how many protons and neutrons does it have, are you filling a nuclear shell (as opposed to an atomic shell), does it have an even or odd number of protons or neutrons, are there enough neutrons to help overcome repulsion of the protons, etc.

    The nuclear decay properties and the chemistry both depend upon the number of protons in the nucleus. For chemistry that forces you to have a certain number of electrons and various oxidation states. The number of neutrons change the mass of the isotope, and the chemical energy levels change when the orbitals account for the reduced mass of the system (everything orbits a common center of mass). Diffusion also depends upon the atomic mass, which is why U-235 can be separated from U-238.

    As the uranium decay series progresses, other radioactive progeny are produced that have their own decay properties, their own chemistry, and their own mobility through a soil matrix or solubility in water. That mobility impacts the potential dose to people.

    Most of these radionuclides are alpha emitters, which means you likely will not get any dose unless the isotope enters the body via inhalation or consumption of food or drink. Alpha particles can be stopped by paper or skin.

  8. Linsey 2017-05-12 11:41

    You missed the whole point. The chemical toxicity of the radioactive metals and their ability to interfere with biochemical pathways has nothing to do with the radioactive properties. It gives radioactive toxic metals a double whammy of toxicity.

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