How the West Was Lost

Watch Nunn Glow

A watertower in Nunn, Colorado, near the site of the proposed Powertech Centennial uranium mine.

South Dakota weathered the downturn of 2008-2009 better than most areas of the United States. It is well known that agriculture and tourism are driving economic forces in South Dakota. While many may think that the pine beetle is the greatest threat to our economic vitality, I would suggest it is quite something else.  That something else is water.

Yes, water, which just one year ago we seemed to have too much of along the Missouri. But now we are in the midst of the worst drought in decades.

Of course, none of us can control the weather. But the absence of water throughout the Midwest has resulted in a shipwreck for corn, soy, hay and the ramifications are thundering in on the cattle, poultry and sheep industries. This most likely will drive costs up dramatically at the grocery store placing an even greater economic burden on families.

Water is taken for granted by too many of us. And while weather may be fickle, dishing out too much one year and drought the next, a more sinister and permanent loss of water is spreading at lightening speed throughout the country, particularly in the west. This robbery of our water is due to the extraction industry.  That includes fracking for oil and gas and mining of coal, gold, phosphate and uranium as the major perpetrators.  While many gush (no pun intended) about the oil fields of western North Dakota, they already are seeing major water problems there. Water wars are raging in CO, OK, TX, and UT as well as ND, MT, and WY. We can’t ranch without water, and none of us can live and be healthy without sufficient and safe water.  The literature is filled with regions, towns, and individuals who have lost their water either by volume or contamination due to fracking and mining.

What about South Dakota?

South Dakota’s arid climate heightens water concerns. Have our city and state leaders considered water security for our region and state? It would seem not. In an article for the Rapid City Journal 7/2/12, Michael Sanborn raised the question about Rapid City’s water security and future. Contractors continue to build at a feverish rate and Rapid City’s growth, if it is to be maintained and remain robust must involve water security. The 9/28/2012 USA TODAY front page elaborated on the fast occurring water crisis throughout the USA and cited communities whose rates have doubled and tripled in a very short period of time.

What are we willing to pay for our water? People repeatedly write into the paper whining about gas prices when we pay the least in the world and consume fuel like drunken sailors. The reality is that our costs for that most important of human resources, water, may soon dwarf costs for fuel. We will have no choice on that one as we must have water to live. How will you feel about $7.00 a gallon for water? The World Health Organization predicts a world water crisis by 2020.

In Situ Leach Mining Diagram

A diagram of the water-intensive process of in situ leach (ISL) uranium mining.

What about our state legislators and governor – what have they done to nurture water security? Sadly, they have actually acted to jeopardize and place it in great peril.   West River’s water supply comes greatly from aquifers.  If those aquifers are contaminated or depleted, it is reasonable to believe our economic, social and public health indicators will plummet. Will the Commissioners allow fracking to threaten our aquifers?  One wonders why the legislature in 2011 passed SB 158 which stripped the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) of its regulatory capacity pertaining to ISL (in situ leach) uranium mining.

POWERTECH, a Canadian refrigerator company has moved forward to begin uranium mining at the Dewey-Burdock Project in Fall River County. SB 158 opens the doors for other companies to mine uranium throughout the Black Hills with no protection for our citizens. Don’t be misled – the NRC does not protect us after a permit is granted and the EPA told me in a conversation that they cannot provide the protective services our DENR should be providing. These companies don’t pay for their water like we do and this kind of mining uses exponential amounts of water – water that is permanently lost due to contamination.

Adding to the severity of the problem is that their water usage of 4,000 gallons per minute (minimum) up to 8,000 gallons per minute (Powertech estimates) will dry up water resources and aquifers for ranchers and communities. If you multiply out those numbers, one would suspect disaster for the Madison aquifer if it is drained of 5,760,000 to 11,520,000 gallons per day (assuming 24-hour operation)! Multiply that out for ten years and then consider droughts and this is a recipe for disaster.  Edgemont and Hot Springs may soon find themselves without sufficient or potable water.

Not one single West River legislator voted to block that bill.  The two main sponsors of the bill, Sen. Tim Rave and Rep. Val Rausch (Sioux Falls area) led the march for SB 158, obviously not concerned about West River’s water. Interestingly, they both received 0% on the report card compiled by Dakota Rural Action, a grassroots family agriculture and conservation group working on sustainable agriculture. Worse yet, co-sponsors of the bill were from West River! Sen. Bruce Rampelberg and  Reps. Brian Gosch, David Lust, Lance Russell and Mike Verchio all supported this egregious bill. Why would they put our region’s future and our citizens at such a risk? Rep. Gosch also scored a zero on his Dakota Rural Action report card.

Rep. Lance Russell

Rep. Lance Russell (R, Fall River/Custer/Pennington Counties), among SD legislators who supported SB 158 to remove uranium mining regulations

Interestingly, Rep. Lance Russell is from the very region where the proposed mine is to be placed. How could he jeopardize his citizens this way? Court documents have been obtained from Fall River that show that Rep. Russell represented his mother in a contentious land battle where they won land that has significant Powertech leases! That occurred at the very same time SB 158 took place. Additionally, Sen. Elizabeth Kraus of Rapid City did not recuse herself in the vote even though her husband was/is a Powertech engineer. This doesn’t make people feel very confident in their delegates. Perhaps a public disclosure and transparency policy is needed by the legislators. SD is one of the few states in the country that doesn’t have ethics rules and policies for their legislature.

Last but not least, the public health dangers of uranium mining are significant and unduly affect women and children. The first gender based study on radiation exposure was published in 2011 and which shows women have 50% more INCIDENCE and MORTALITY for the same exposure as men. One need only search the literature to find that where uranium mining exists, so does exceedingly high disease (especially cancer) rates. Is this what we want for our children and future generations?

It is up to each citizen to get informed and scream loudly to your legislative representatives, senators, commissioners, mayors – essentially all leaders. We need the medical community to stand and be counted in this fight for public health. Tourists and new residents will not come to a toxic region and without water agriculture and our economy will wither and die.

–Rebecca R. Leas, Ph.D. is a Health Education Specialist from Rapid City, SD

For more information contact the Clean Water Alliance at or visit The Clean Water Alliance  is a group of Black hills citizens who are concerned about  water, health, and the environmental and social impacts of uranium mining. For up to date legal information on the company Powertech, see:


About sdpeacejustice

The SD Peace & Justice Center connects a grassroots network of South Dakotans working for social justice and against violence and oppression.
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3 Responses to How the West Was Lost

  1. Pingback: Was This Land Made for You and Me? | A Mighty Flood of Justice

  2. Pingback: SD drought looks dire; Powertech wants to make it even worse | A Mighty Flood of Justice

  3. Pingback: Taking the fight to Powertech | A Mighty Flood of Justice

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