Questions answered about Dewey-Burdock uranium project at public meetings hosted by enCore Energy

Photo by Brett Nachtigall/Fall River County Herald-Star

enCore Energy CEO Paul Goranson listens to a question from an audience member during a public meeting held at the Hot Springs American Legion on Wednesday, Nov. 2.

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By Brett Nachtigall

Publisher

HOT SPRINGS – Prior to this Tuesday's election, where Fall River County voters will decide whether or not uranium mining should be considered a nuisance, representatives with enCore Energy hosted a series of public meetings in Edgemont, Hot Springs and Custer last week. At each of the meetings, CEO Paul Goranson summarized his company's plans to utilize In Situ Recovery (ISR) mining technologies to extract underground uranium in the Dewey-Burdock area, located 16 miles northwest of Edgemont. EnCore Energy, a Canadian-based energy company with its main offices in Texas, purchased the project, totaling 12,613 surface acres, from Arzaga/Powertech in January 2022.

Goranson described ISR mining as a much safer alternative to the open pit uranium mining that was done in the Edgemont area by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) during the 1950s to 1970s. He said the process involves a series of injection wells where groundwater – combined with oxygen and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) – is pumped underground to dissolve the uranium and then pulled back up to the surface by a production well. Goranson said the technology is similar to that of a Culligan water softener, except that instead of removing the calcium from the water, they are removing uranium.

“It's been a proven technology for the last 40 years, and according to an NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) report to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), as of 2019, there's been no documented case where drinking water has been impacted,” Goranson said.

The meetings last week were a follow-up to some similar gatherings held in Hot Springs and Edgemont in September, which were attended by only about 30 people each and featured very few comments from those opposed to the uranium mining.

Last week's better-attended, two-hour public meeting in Hot Springs at the American Legion on Nov. 2 however featured mostly comments and questions by uranium mining opposition, with Hot Springs resident John Davis being one of the first to express his feelings.

After describing how the uranium should be left safely underground in its current and natural state, and how he rejects enCore Energy's hopes to make money off of removing it from the ground by using water, Davis said, “That water is supposed to go to our bodies.”

“You can't tell us it's completely safe,” Davis said. “I commend you for trying to do it safely, but it's just not feasible right now … You're gonna throw us money. I don't like that, because money isn't going to buy our water. We need that water for life. So I'm firmly against it. I haven't been convinced otherwise that it's safe. 

Local resident Ben Sharp said he had multiple questions for Goranson and began with one regarding the physics statement that, “liquid under pressure exerts force in all directions.” Sharp then went on to strongly question how enCore Energy can support their claim, through the use of diagrams, that they will be able to force water underground and then have it contained by unspecified “invisible forces” to come back up to the surface with the uranium. He said that should not be possible, since the geology of the Black Hills area is fractured and includes a lot of cracks and fissures in which the water will most likely go instead, because liquids will naturally go in the direction of least resistance.

“The whole premise of these diagrams, and the whole idea, that you're going to put a chemical excipient in this water to dissolve uranium and have all of it come back out through the extraction well, assumes that you're controlling the movement of a pressurized liquid underground?” Sharp said.

To which Goranson responded, “Yes, I can do that.”

“The only way to do that is to plug every other (hole), because if you put pressure on it, and there's a leak this way, it's going to go this way, even if you don't want it to,” Sharp restated.

“That's not true,” Goranson said. “I'm a hydrologist, not by profession, but you're talking about two different things. You're assuming that all we're doing is pushing water underground, but you're not accounting for the water we're pulling out. Water may go out radially but it does focus and come back. There's tons and tons of evidence of that. Lots of data. And I have worked in areas where there are fractures and faults, and everything else, and we've been able to contain it.”

Goranson then went on to say how he has not experienced any of the leaks which Sharp eluded to, because they are able to monitor the process in all directions, as he described how the ISR technology relieves more pressure out the extraction (or production) well, than is being added through the injection wells.

The back-and-forth then shifted towards the much-discussed bore holes, which remain from TVA's uranium mining operations several decades ago. Sharp questioned how enCore can prevent leakage with those holes still in existence. Goranson then responded by saying he understood that TVA had plugged the holes, and if they hadn't, the company is not allowed to mine uranium until they are indeed plugged.

Edgemont area rancher Mark Hollenbeck, who has served many years as a representative for Powertech, which is now subsidiary of enCore Energy, said there are 7,000 to 8,000 bore holes.

“This is an artesian formation, most of that is under artesian pressure,” Hollenbeck said. “So if there's an open bore hole, water comes to the surface. So if you didn't plug them, there would be water running all over the surface out there … if you've been out there, there's not water running everywhere out there.”

The two sides, which included uranium opponents Sarah Peterson and Mary Helen Pederson, both of Hot Springs, then began a debate on whether or not Hollenbeck had previously stated the bore holes were not plugged, to which Hollenbeck denied ever stating.

After being questioned why some residential artesian wells still need to have pumps to bring the water to the surface, Hollenbeck further clarified that the holes in the Dewey-Burdock area are “artesian to the surface,” and also stated that there was some evidence that one or two holes had leaked to the surface in the past. “There is no evidence anywhere else,” he said.

A bit later in the discussion, enCore's Executive Chairman Bill Sheriff, who hosted the previous Hot Springs meeting in September, said, “If there are open bore holes, we have to fill them before we can begin production.”

Later in the meeting, when asked about where his company would be selling the uranium, Goranson said, “Everything we've committed to sell – and we haven't sold a pound of it or made any money off of it – is going to be used in the United States for U.S. nuclear power. We're not selling anything to a foreign entity.”

Following more discussion about water quality – before and after uranium mining begins and ends – and towards the end of the allotted two hours for the meeting, Sharp again stood and asked Goranson and the other enCore representatives a question directly related to the Nov. 8 election, where Fall River County citizens will vote to determine if their operations should be considered a nuisance.

“I would like to know, will you tell the people of this county, that if the vote goes against this project and the referendum says 'no, we don't want this,' you will respect that democratic (decision) and say, 'Thank you very much. We're going to see our way out.' Or are you going to challenge this?” Sharp asked.

He then followed that up with a second question, and asked, “If you're going to try and challenge the referendum and say, 'no, you don't have the authority to ban uranium mining in this county, therefore we're going to let distant bureaucrats in Washington D.C. do it,' what percentage of the vote would it take for you to say, 'actually, we're not wanted here.' Maybe 60 percent? Eighty percent? Would you think you would have the right with only 10 percent of the county to impose your will to the other 90 percent just because bureaucrats in D.C. are on you side?”

Goranson responded by saying he wouldn't give Sharp a number, because it's not his vote and not his job to defend it. “The people who put the petition out there, they have to defend why it's important to do,” he said, while adding that they have federal and state decisions that support what they're trying to do.

Hollenbeck then rose from his chair and asked Sharp, “What level does it take for you to accept (the vote of) the Argentine Township, where this project really is. This project isn't in Hot Springs. This project is in the Argentine Township. Those are the landowners that you're trying to steal the property rights and the mineral rights from, out in western Fall River County. That's where the project is at. You guys don't even have the Inyan Kara (the underground aquifer in which the uranium in being mined) over here in Hot Springs. Eastern Fall River, certainly (but not Hot Springs). At what point would you accept the vote of the people it actually affects?”

“Because these aquifers affect us all,” Sharp responded.

“No they don't,” Hollenbeck said. Earlier in the meeting, it was pointed out by enCore officials that the portion of the Inyan Kara aquifer in which the uranium is being mined is currently unsuitable for drinking, based on EPA standards. The Madison aquifer, where most Fall River County residents get their drinking water, is located approximately 1,500 feet below the Inyan Kara.

“Without this water, the Black Hills is a desert,” Sharp said, to which Hollenbeck responded, “Except that water goes west. It doesn't go to Hot Springs. None of that water from the Dewey-Burdock project ends up in Hot Springs. Not one drop.”

“Then why are we here?” asked Davis.

“That's a good question,” Hollenbeck responded.

“Then why are you here defending that's the case, if it's not something you're worried about?” Davis asked.

“I'm worried about you guys killing a project that doesn't affect you, that affects us,” Hollenbeck said.

Fall River County Herald Star

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