Let’s say you own 245 million acres. And underneath that land are billions of dollars’ worth of minerals – gold, silver, copper, uranium and more. Would you let foreign companies in to tear up your land, put your water at risk and take those minerals without paying royalties?
You already are. That’s the amount of public surface land controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the federal government’s biggest landholder. And companies that mine these lands are exempt from federal royalty payments.
And it’s happening right now. Take, for example, the Dewey Burdock uranium project in South Dakota. It encompasses 240 acres of public surface land, plus more than 4,000 subsurface acres of uranium-rich earth.
As of two months ago, a Hong Kong-based company had secured the right to mine and profit off that uranium, used to replenish nuclear power plants around the world, particularly in China. In November, Hong Kong’s Azarga Resources merged with Powertech to become Azarga Uranium and manage the Dewey Burdock project.
Azarga will pay no royalties to the United States government. Thanks to the Mining Law of 1872, which still governs uranium and other “hardrock” mining to this day, any company can extract and sell minerals from public lands without paying a cent in royalties to the federal government.
A spokesman for the mine, Mark Hollenbeck, points out that the mine will be paying South Dakota a severance tax, which is a tax on extracting nonrenewable resources.
Besides the royalties issue, some community members worry this mine will put their drinking water at risk. In-situ uranium mining by nature takes place where there is groundwater. The process involves injecting chemicals into the aquifer where the uranium ore is. The chemicals leach the uranium from the rock, and the uranium is then pumped to the surface. At Dewey Burdock, opponents are concerned that the radioactive, uranium-laden groundwater won’t be contained to the mining site.
Last week, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released testimony from geologist Hannan LaGarry. LaGarry found serious flaws in the company’s analysis of the groundwater geology. He concluded that that there is a risk of groundwater contamination if the mine is allowed to go forward.
The mining company opposed the release of the testimony.
In the U.S., the aquifer by law must be restored to its previous condition when mining is finished. That means the water must be cleaned enough to put it back to its pre-mining uses.