“Mni is our first home, when we arrive here on Mother Earth, the water of our mothers’ womb is our first dwelling. Water is our first medicine. Without water, there is no life.”
Debra White Plume
(Kiza Park, Oglala Homeland, August 24, 2014) Sacred Water Protection “is a long term priority of the work of Owe Aku to engage in the protection of sacred water inside treaty boundaries. This part of our work is conducted through treaty rights and human rights education and action in regards to drinking water and environmental protection. We began this work in 2005, conducting research into drinking water quality and the health conditions of our people on the Pine Ridge” (Environmental Justice & The Survival Of A People: Uranium Mining & the Oglala Lakota People, by Debra White Plume, Owe Aku, www.oweakuinternational.org). Since then, Owe Aku has made many allies and instituted several projects that pertain to the protection of Sacred Water.
Although our work has been concentrated over the past several years on the Keystone XL Pipeline, our efforts have included challenges to uranium mining in the Black Hills, including the PowerTech application for an area near Edgemont, South Dakota. The process proposed by PowerTech is highly toxic and called in situ leach mining which uses 9,000 gallons of water per minute. PowerTech, which was a Canadian corporation sold to a Chinese company (Azarga Rsources Ltd.) since the challenge to their uranium mining permit began back in 2010, is now on its second application for a permit before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. This last week the process continued in Hot Springs and Rapid City.
Monday (August 18) was dedicated to public comment in Hot Springs. Several bright yellow and red signs were seen in the front yards throughout town, stating “No Uranium Mining.” It was clear that Clean Water Alliance and Dakota Rural Alliance had done their jobs well and we say wopila (thank you). At the public comment forum, 68 people from the communities whose water would be most effected spoke before the administrative judges. 59 of them were opposed to the assault on SacredWater. These challenges were brought by the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Consolidated Intervenors (Susan Henderson, Dayton Hyde, Aligning for Responsible Mining, and many individuals). Under the very complicated rules and bureaucracy, the panel of Atomic Licensing Board Judges had the opportunity to choose from the extensive list of challenges brought by opponents (the list of challenges to the permit that were addressed are at the end of this report). The 59 people that spoke in favor of SacredWater addressed different issues but all with the same goal: to keep the water safe and clean for future generations.
The City Attorney spoke on behalf of the mayor of Rapid City and told the panel that PowerTech’s proposal threatened to contaminate the main source of drinking water in that town and that raised grave concerns for the City Council and the city’s people. Others spoke of the 100% risk being taken by all the peoples of this region in order to give away free water for the profits of a foreign corporation. “One of our greatest concerns is the quantity of water [that PowerTech will take]. 14,000 acre feet of water will be gone forever.” Under a Powertech self-monitoring system South Dakota is giving to PowerTech, “once water rights are granted, the state of South Dakota no longer has ANY control over what happens to the water, how it’s used, or what happens with negative impacts,” stated a member from Dakota Rural Action. A member of Clean Water Alliance told the panel of judges how treaties with the Lakota Oyate were being violated and that they, the NRC, were not following their own federal laws and regulations, interestingly the same argument Owe Aku International Justice Project has used at venues like the United Nations.
The following three days (September 19th – 21st) of formal proceedings were moved to the Hotel Alex Johnson and the first day Water Protectors had a victory. Since the beginning of these proceedings several years ago, PowerTech had acquired new information relating to the proposed mine site through the use of sample bores in the Earth, and had failed to reveal that information to anybody, including the NRC or the panel of judges in this proceeding. PowerTech was, however, ordered to turn that information over. (See http://www.indianz.com/News/2014/014807.asp.)
Although highly technical, most of the hearing focused on the same objections to the application’s contentions as those at the public hearing on the previous day. Each side had several different expert witnesses answering questions from the judges about the connection of the aquifers, their relationship to each other and to surface water, the effects of flooding, earthquakes and wind on waste ponds, as well as the consequences of drought and the overwhelming impact of the use of water on the regeneration rates of the aquifers. Although not a court proceeding, lawyers were permitted to question the “witnesses” and testimony was submitted about the critical results of in situ leach mining on the cultural, historical and contemporary heritage of the Lakota Oyate.
Wilmer Mesteth and Dennis Yellow Thunder of the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Natural Resources Department entered public comments into the official record. Mesteth, a well respected instructor at Oglala Lakota College and Traditional Spiritual leader of the Lakota Nation, spoke completely in Lakota without translation. It was interesting that the organizers of the proceedings did not consider how many Lakota people may have commented if there were an interpreter available.
David Frankel, attorney for Alignment for Responsible Mining, used a basketball analogy (appropriate in Lakota Country) in explaining the proceeding: “PowerTech has a full bench of players with trainers and physical therapists, while we got five guys running around on the floor who are always there. The think they can beat us but what they don’t realize is that we ain’t procedurally, PowerTech still has to clear several hurdles. Meanwhile their legal funds are being depleted, the price of uranium is crashing, and who knows what their new corporate owners in China might do. We do know what we will do: protect SacredWater.