Ruling cheers critics of uranium mine
Omaha WORLD-HERALD BUREAU
LINCOLN, NE; Federal regulators supplied a victory this week to opponents of the expansion of Nebraska’s only uranium mine.
The Crow Butte Resources mine east of Crawford is seeking to expand to a 2,100-acre site north of that Dawes County community.
The original mine opened in 1991 and produces about 800,000 pounds of yellowcake uranium each year.
The uranium is removed by pumping water and bicarbonate into the ground, then withdrawing the solution and recovering the dissolved mineral.
A three-judge panel from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled that opponents had raised valid concerns about the potential for groundwater contamination and threats to human health that warrant oral arguments.
The judges also said a hearing will be held on objections to the foreign ownership of the mine. It is owned by a Canadian firm, Cameco Corp., the world’s largest uranium producer.
A Cameco spokesman said that the NRC’s 130-page ruling was complex and that more time was needed to review it.
“We are committed to safe, sustainable operations, and we’re following the regulatory process in good faith,” said Lyle Krahn from company headquarters in Saskatchewan.
Officials with two groups that oppose the mine expansion said they were pleased that the NRC judges, after a public hearing in Chadron in January, agreed to allow their concerns to be heard.
“We have the right to have a clean environment and have corporations adhere to the law,” said Debra White Plume, director of Owe Aku/Bring Back the Way, a nonprofit Lakota cultural group at Manderson, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
David Frankel, the Hawaii-based attorney for the Western Nebraska Resources Council, said the coming hearings will require Cameco to prove that the foreign-owned company is serving “U.S. national interests,” which he said is a requirement in NRC rules.
Frankel said the hearings also will require the company to show that its mining in the Chadron aquifer is not intermingling with two other aquifers, the Brule and High Plains aquifers, from which water for humans, crops and livestock is drawn.
He said the resources council believes that fractures in underground rock formations allow mixing of water used for mining with water used by people, spreading contamination from one aquifer to others.
The existence of a connection, Frankel said, is backed up in a letter submitted as evidence by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality.
In general, opponents say that the mining is unsafe and that the company does not adequately monitor its work, contentions that Crow Butte officials dispute.
During the January hearing, Crow Butte officials said that 100 to 200 feet of impermeable material separates the Chadron aquifer from other aquifers and that monitoring wells ensure that any problems are detected and cleaned up.
In its ruling, the NRC judges included the Western Nebraska Resources Council and Owe Aku as parties in the hearings, but rejected the participation of Thomas Cook of Chadron, the Slim Buttes Agricultural Development Corp. and White Plume as an individual.
The judges indicated they would discuss the involvement of the Oglala Sioux Tribe at a pre-hearing conference.
The conference and hearings have not been scheduled.
A final decision on whether to permit the mine expansion is several months away, said David McIntyre, a spokesman for the NRC.
Crow Butte recently announced its intention to seek two more mine expansions near Crawford. One, in 2009, would be just south of Fort Robinson State Park; the other, in 2010, just northeast of Marsland. ,
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