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Uranium exploration sparks Indian, environmental 4-29-07

EDGEMONT, S.D. (AP) - Worldwide demand for nuclear power as an emissions-free source of energy has sparked a boom of sorts for uranium, as prices have multipled tenfold.

But the promise of radioactive deposits worth millions of dollars has set off a debate on the southwest South Dakota prairie involving American Indians and energy developers over whether the payoff is worth the price if there's a threat to the environment or people.

A state board in January awarded the first uranium exploration permit in the state in a quarter century to Powertech, a Canadian company that plans to drill 155 exploratory holes this summer in an area thought to hold 7.6 million pounds of uranium worth more than $500 million.

The board amended the permit last week to add a requirement that archaeological sites be reported and avoided if they're found.

That change was prompted by a lawsuit filed by Defenders of the Black Hills, an Indian treaty rights group opposed to uranium exploration and mining - partly because it harms the earth.

“She is alive, and when you drill these holes in her, you are hurting her,” its founder, Charmaine White Face, told the board.

Unearthing radioactive material introduces it into the water and air, and some mines abandoned in western South Dakota decades ago are only now being studied for clean up, she has said.

But Mike Cepak, engineering director of the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said low-grade uranium is common in the state, so exploratory drilling poses little risk. And laws are in place to allow its recovery, he said.

“You find it just about everywhere,” Cepak said. “We're not planning special protection to go out there because we think the risk of uranium exposure is so low it would be similar to natural background levels.”

The permit is only for exploration. Powertech has posted a $213,500 bond with the state to guarantee its exploration holes will be filled, said Richard Blubaugh, Powertech vice president.

Actual mining would be years away and require new permits from the state and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission plus Environmental Protection Agency approval, Cepak said.

If Powertech's exploration turns into mining, it plans to pump a solution into deep holes to dissolve the uranium and pull it out of another set of holes, a process that's far safer than surface mining, Blubaugh said.

“You don't have open uranium deposits exposed to the water or the environment,” he said last month at a uranium summit in Rapid City, organized by Defenders of the Black Hills.

An environmental impact statement would be required and the operation would be monitored if Powertech mines the area, he said.

But Kim Kearfott, a University of Michigan nuclear engineering professor, said there's always the chance mining will cause problems that can harm the environment and humans.

“They might go in and pull out all this uranium and remediate. But when they do that, they may cause other material to move,” she said at the uranium summit. “They have to consider what can go wrong.”

Maybe. But the drought-plagued region has few economic development opportunities, so it's wise to take a good look at it, said Mark Hollenbeck, who has been a state lawmaker and Edgemont's mayor.

“I think it's a great thing, financially, for the area,” he said as he pointed out old open uranium pits and underground mines that were active from the 1940s to the 1970s, some of them on land he now owns.

“After being in a drought for five years, if we don't get rain this year there will be thousands of cattle that leave this area,” Hollenbeck said.

He worked as a chemical engineer before moving back and said he doesn't worry about the risk of uranium exposure to his four children, all under the age of 4.

“I probably have more exposure riding my horse next to the cliffs.”