Yesterday was a tough day for those of us who want to keep South Dakota’s water safe for future generations. At 10:00 am, the Senate Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee held a hearing for Senate Bills 148, 149, and 150 to bolster state oversight of uranium mining (read more in our earlier post on the three bills). After hearing from ranchers, public health experts, activists, lobbyists, and South Dakota citizens who will have to deal with the fallout from Powertech’s proposed Dewey-Burdock Project in Fall River County, the Committee promptly voted to defer all three bills, effectively killing them.
Sabrina King at Dakota Rural Action was there and reports:
In voting down SB 148, excuses about lack of funding and expanding government were made. If our water matters, we should allocate the funding. People, South Dakotas citizens, are asking for this. We are asking for the oversight. It is not up to the legislature to tell us they don’t want to allocate the funds. An oft-repeated statement was also repeated by Sen. Krebs, R-Renner, that the state has oversight of the water issues in the permitting process, and that we have the opportunity to speak to against these permits in March. But permits are not the same as oversight. Permits are not the same as on-going monitoring. And permits do not give South Dakota the protection it needs. [emphasis original]
It also became clear as the bills moved forward that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources does not have the best interest of South Dakotans at heart. Secretary Steve Pirner opposed every single bill… [and] when the DENR presented early in this session to both the House and Senate Ag. and Natural Resources Committees, the DENR was presented as a permit-granting, economic machine. The DENR needs to hear that we, the citizens, don’t appreciate their lack of interest in protecting our resources.
The future (and even present-day) water supply and water quality of local South Dakotans is what economists refer to as an “externality.” That is, according to Wikipedia: “a cost or benefit that is not transmitted through prices in that it is incurred by a party who was not involved as either a buyer or seller of the goods or services causing the cost or benefit.” An example of a positive externality is the carbon captured by the trees in an orchard. The orchard provides the farmer with an immediate economic benefit: apples, which he can sell for a profit. But those trees also provide the rest of society with a sink (however small) for carbon in the atmosphere, ameliorating the effects of global climate change. The farmer pays to grow the trees, but everybody benefits from the positive externality. In this case, it’s in the farmer’s self-interest to plant more trees, increasing both his yield and his carbon capture.
In the same way, when Powertech mines uranium, it uses up water from the Madison and Inyan Kara aquifers that, even at their deepest and dirtiest, could someday serve as drinking water sources for a swiftly warming South Dakota. More to the point, groundwater movement, and its importance in maintaining ecosystems (well-documented in Robert Glennon’s fascinating, frustrating 2002 book Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping & the Fate of America’s Fresh Water) especially during a period of intense drought, is difficult to predict. Groundwater models can change drastically depending on the assumptions about water usage and flow that underlie them. So when hydro-geologist Raymond Johnson said last night in Hot Springs that “he had conducted an independent water analysis on groundwater in the proposed mining area and said he ‘found no evidence of cross contamination of the aquifers,'” there’s the very real chance that, as at Christensen Ranch in Wyoming, today’s science (and the assumptions embedded therein) may have unforeseen consequences.
Those unforeseen (or perhaps foreseen but simply discounted) consequences are the negative externalities in this case: lower water tables during times of drought; the possibility for heavy metal contamination in possible drinking water sources; pollution of, and concentration of preexisting pollutants in, potential drinking water sources; ecosystem disruption; and so on. But whereas in the farmer’s case his interest in increased production and the public’s interest in more carbon-capturing foliage intersect, here private and public interests diverge sharply. It’s in Powertech’s interests to suck the Southern Hills dry, especially since they are able to externalize the costs of that operation – all the things I just mentioned – onto the local population, long after they have packed up their equipment and headed back to Canada with the profits from our resources.
So what regulations like Senate Bills 148, 149, and 150 do is they build in the costs of those externalities: they increase continuous oversight at the state and local levels (since our federal regulators are stretched dangerously thin as it is); they require that groundwater be returned to pre-mining levels and purity; they require that accidents be reported immediately. Yes, that all imposes costs on the mining company. But there are real costs that, under a deregulated market regime, the mining company doesn’t have to bear but that the rest of us do. Regulations like those in the above bills make sure that the company’s incentive isn’t just to not care at all and stick the rest of us with the bill for decades afterward.
Evidently, South Dakota lawmakers care more about foreign uranium companies than they do about their own citizens.
So it should be unsurprising to learn that, in addition to this legislative blow in Pierre, opponents of Powertech were dealt a propaganda blow in Hot Springs last night:
Powertech’s proposed uranium mining project was generally seen as positive at a meeting Thursday night hosted by the Southern Hills Economic Development Corp.
“If you look at a map, taking in uranium, oil, gas and coal production, energy is all around us,” Benjamin Snow, president of the Rapid City Economic Development Corporation, said. “We support this project as being good for the entire region, which is interconnected.”
Among those speaking about the project, which would extract uranium through an in situ water-injection process, were Mark Hollenbeck, project manager for Powertech, Raymond Johnson, a hydro-geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, and Mike Cepak with the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
“We set this up as an educational opportunity,” said Cindy Turner, SHEDC director from Edgemont. “Hopefully this was a source of information, leading people to more informed decision making.”
With its typically fair and balanced reporting, the Rapid City Journal declined to solicit comments for their coverage from anyone but the pro-Powertech speakers at the event. Nor did they mention that despite the stated intent to help people “make more informed decisions,” the forum organizers declined to schedule a Q&A session. They also declined to mention that, despite the speakers pitching Powertech as a boon, not everyone who showed up was equally enthused:
Naturally, the Rapid City Journal made no mention of those folks, the ones who weren’t invited to speak by the Southern Hills Economic “Development” Council, the ones who are trying to make sure that Powertech doesn’t externalize its costs onto those of us who will have to live with them for years to come. But their very presence, unheralded as it may have been by the media establishment, was a victory of solidarity for a campaign that has most definitely taken some knocks in the past few days.