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“Get the Hell Off”: The Indigenous Fight to Stop a Uranium Mine in the Black Hills

An unidentified member of AIM Native American woman sits with her rifle at ready on steps of building in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, March 2, 1973. Indians still have control of town having seized it on Tuesday. Eleven hostages they had taken were finally released. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Get the Hell Off”: The Indigenous Fight to Stop a Uranium Mine in the Black Hills

Can the Lakota win a “paper war” to save their sacred sites?

Mother Jones,  BY DELILAH FRIEDLER; PHOTOS BY DANNY WILCOX FRAZIER, MARCH/APRIL 2020 ISSUE, Regina Brave remembers the moment the first viral picture of her was taken. It was 1973, and 32-year-old Brave had taken up arms in a standoff between federal marshals and militant Indigenous activists in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Brave had been assigned to guard a bunker on the front lines and was holding a rifle when a reporter leaped from a car to snap her photo. She remembers thinking that an image of an armed woman would never make the papers—“It was a man’s world,” she says—but the bespectacled Brave, in a peacoat with hair pulled back,   was on front pages across the country the following Sunday……..

Today, Brave and other Lakota elders are staring down yet another encroachment on their historic lands: a 10,600-acre uranium mine proposed to be built in the Black Hills. The Dewey-Burdock mine would suck up as much as 8,500 gallons of groundwater per minute from the Inyan Kara aquifer to extract as much as 10 million pounds of ore in total. Lakota say the project violates both the 1868 US-Lakota treaty and federal environmental laws by failing to take into account the sacred nature of the site. If the mine is built, they say, burial grounds would be destroyed and the region’s waters permanently tainted.
A legal win for the Lakota would represent an unprecedented victory for a tribe over corporations such as Power­tech, the Canadian-owned firm behind Dewey-­Burdock, that have plundered the resource-rich hills. And it could set precedents forcing federal regulators to protect Indigenous sites and take tribes’ claims more seriously. The fight puts the Lakota on a collision course with the Trump administration, which has close ties to energy companies and is doubling down on nuclear power while fast-tracking new permits and slashing environmental protectionseven using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to further roll back regulations. All of this makes Black Hills mineral deposits more attractive than they’ve been in decades.
For Brave, the Dewey-Burdock mine is just the latest battle in a long war to stop settlers’ affronts to Lakota lands and sovereignty. “They’re taking so much from [the earth] and not giving anything back,” Brave tells me, a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from her fingers. “I’m thinking we should say to them, ‘Get the hell off. Your rent is over.’”
When the gold rush petered out, mining companies pivoted to silver, tungsten, iron, and limestone. In 1951, uranium was discovered. Within 20 years, there were more than 150 uranium mines centered on a small boomtown called Edgemont, in Paha Sapa’s southern foothills, where the Oglala once made their winter camp………
The southern foothills are rocky and quiet, but just north, bikers and families in RVs clog the highways to visit abandoned gold mines, old-timey saloons, and the main attraction, Mount Rushmore, which was carved into a sacred mountain known to the Lakota as the Six Grandfathers. “We call it the Shrine of Hypocrisy,” says Tonia Stands, an Oglala Lakota who has been one of Pine Ridge’s most persistent voices against uranium mining.
For decades, Lakota activists have raised alarms about the risks uranium mining poses to their communities. In 1962, radioactive material seeped from a broken dam into the Cheyenne River, upstream from Pine Ridge. Mining ceased in 1973, but the reservation continues to grapple with epidemic levels of birth defects, cancer, and kidney disease. Today, Pine Ridge has the lowest life expectancy of any US county. The rampant health issues help explain why reservation leaders took swift action to stem the spread of coronavirus before they even confirmed their first case.
While no evidence has definitively linked their health problems to mining, many Lakota believe that uranium contamination is partly to blame, and they point to the Environmental Protection Agency’s settlements in response to the effects of mining in the Navajo Nation, which acknowledged links between high levels of uranium in soil and drinking water and cancer, kidney disease, and reproductive issues on the reservation…….
Stands wears her hair in a single black braid reaching all the way down her back. Her grandmother was a “uranium fighter,” as was her late uncle Wilmer Mesteth, who helped found the Oglalas’ Tribal Historic Preservation Office. In 2010, three years after Powertech began the process of licensing Dewey-Burdock, Mesteth and the tribe filed a petition with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which oversees uranium mine permitting, to stop construction. They argued that the project was moving forward in violation of their sovereign will as well as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the landmark 1970 law requiring federal agencies to document the impacts of all projects they build or license. According to the tribe and local geologists, Powertech failed to collect enough data to prove that the mine would not contaminate groundwater, and did not adequately assess how it would affect sites of cultural importance. …..
Adding a layer of oddity to the whole situation, Powertech is so far a mining company only on paper. It has never produced an ounce of ore and can only keep litigating as long as investors remain convinced that footing its bills will eventually pay off. Powertech anticipates the mine will net about $150 million, yet it says it’s already sunk $10 million into the NRC license, not including litigation or staffing costs. Its parent company, Azarga Uranium, trades as an underregulated penny stock; investment firm Haywood Securities rates its risk factor as “very high.”…..
 today, Powertech is just one of several companies applying to open new mines, anticipating that an administration bent on deregulation, and the appeal of nuclear power as a climate-friendly energy source, could increase profitability……
Trump’s proposed 2021 budget would allocate $150 million to stock a new reserve with domestically mined uranium. The share prices of US mining companies jumped after the report’s release, while factors related to COVID-19 caused the global price of uranium to surge throughout March and April.
Trump has found other ways to boost mining and energy interests in and around reservations and sacred Native sites.  …..
He’s also waging war on the cornerstone of environmental law: …..
Last August, Brave and a dozen tribal members gathered in a hotel ballroom in Rapid City for the latest hearing in their case. The NRC judges, three white men, sat at one end of the room, a photo of Mount Rushmore at their backs. Having lost their claims about environmental harm, the tribe’s lawyers are still trying to convince regulators that the uranium mine would irreparably damage Lakota burial grounds, places of ceremony, and other sacred sites………
Energy and mining companies are treated “like clients instead of regulated entities,” says Jeff Parsons, one of the tribe’s lawyers. The NRC and its permittees “are in absolute lockstep, opposed to citizen and tribal involvement” in a process designed to protect exactly that.
It’s not just the NRC. After the agency rejected the tribe’s environmental arguments, Parsons filed an appeal with the DC Circuit Court. In 2018, the court agreed that the NRC violated the law by licensing Dewey-­Burdock even after its own review panel found “significant deficiency” in the cultural review. But the court declined to vacate the license, citing Powertech’s lament that its stock price “would plummet.”……
After the hearing, Brave and Stands met in a nearby park with the other Lakota who’d driven from Pine Ridge. Sharing their huge pot of stew with homeless people there, most of the group concurred that their case looked strong. But the judges were unmoved: In December, they ruled that the NRC had satisfied NEPA’s requirement to take a “hard look” simply by making a “reasonable effort,” resolving the last objection to the license. “The system is set up to fail our people,” Stands says.
When Brave was just a kid, her grand­father made her memorize the text of the violated 1868 treaty. That came in handy when tribes and the Army Corps of Engineers, which issues permits for projects that cross waterways, were fighting over the Dakota Access pipeline. “When we were at Standing Rock, they said, ‘This is Army Corps of Engineers land.’ And I said, ‘Bullshit. This is treaty territory. The Army Corps of Engineers is not a country and cannot make a treaty with us. We’re sovereign.’”
For the Lakota, sovereignty means the right to determine for themselves what happens on their lands. ……
A shift from merely consulting tribes to making projects contingent on tribes’ involvement and input, a central tenet of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, would represent a monumental change. Under such a policy, the Keystone XL pipeline would likely be blocked by the tribes whose lands it would cross. In 2019, the state of Washington became the first to require the “free, prior, and informed consent” of recognized tribes on any project that “directly and tangibly affects” their people, lands, or sacred sites. In both federal and state supreme courts, tribes are beginning to win more rulings in favor of their long-­forgotten treaty rights…….
A shift from merely consulting tribes to making projects contingent on tribes’ involvement and input, a central tenet of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, would represent a monumental change. Under such a policy, the Keystone XL pipeline would likely be blocked by the tribes whose lands it would cross. In 2019, the state of Washington became the first to require the “free, prior, and informed consent” of recognized tribes on any project that “directly and tangibly affects” their people, lands, or sacred sites. In both federal and state supreme courts, tribes are beginning to win more rulings in favor of their long-­forgotten treaty rights………..

In October, Brave spoke at Magpie Buffalo Organizing’s inaugural “No Uranium in Treaty Territory” summit, which offered a crash course on tribal sovereignty. The activists are closely tracking the various Keystone XL permits, which the Rosebud Sioux Tribe is challenging in court as a treaty vio­lation. As the threat of both uranium and gold mining looms, there’s talk of occupying land in the Black Hills, as the American Indian Movement did in 1981.

For most of her life, Brave hadn’t understood why her grandfather made her memorize the treaty. It didn’t stop the Black Hills gold rush in the 19th century or the uranium boom in the 20th. Nobody knows how many sacred sites were destroyed—but now there’s a chance to protect those that remain……….

May 9, 2020 - Posted by | indigenous issues, opposition to nuclear, Uranium, USA


  1. Thanks for this update. Now I know why I had Pine Ridge on my mind. This mine was one of the links between mining and nuclear at the beginning of the Mining Awareness blog. So, there’s a lot on it in our blog. The other was in Peru. Mining Companies and developers seem to never go away. All you have to do is blink and they come back at you. Dewey Burdock seems to be mostly a paper penny stock mining company, but they often sell off to the big miners. Trump’s made so much damage that it hardly matters whether he is re-elected or not, it will take a long time, if ever, to fix.

    Comment by miningawareness | May 11, 2020 | Reply

    • You’re so right. Any wrong thing that he can possibly do – Trump does it. From this distant colony, we watch in horror as the Age Of Trump unfolds. Like a disturbed toddler , does he unconsciously think “How bad do I have to be, before somebody will stop me”.

      I wonder is that stop will be the complete bankruptcy of America, or nuclear war against China? Or both?

      Comment by Christina MacPherson | May 11, 2020 | Reply

      • Moral and financial bankruptcy, for certain. I was referring more to deregulation and the judicial damage that we haven’t had as much time to notice. I think that there’s a method to his madness. It really looks like Putin’s payback for the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, he seems more close to Netanyahu and his Likud, and to mafia interests. These aren’t mutually exclusive, however. Mafia thrive in chaos. I used to like the idea of sending him back to his maternal island in the Outer Hebrides to heal his ego damage. I don’t know if he is really an enemy of China or not. He has given China favors in exchange for Ivanka patents. Also, there was money-laundering for Iran sanctions evasion run out of Trump Tower Istanbul. I think this all goes back to the Iran-Contra period, Trump’s AG William Barr (who helped protect Bush Sr after Iran Contra), and even back further to running clandestine weapons for liberation of Israel from the UK during and after WWII (probably other countries, too – maybe IRA), when William Barr’s father was member of the OSS and maybe a double or triple or even quadruple agent. William Barr’s father, Donald, was in Europe during the period that Robert Maxwell was and Donald hired Epstein who was close to Robert’s daughter Ghislaine. I just learned that Israel is the one who wanted rid of Saddam and they backed Iran fighting against Saddam in the 80s. This is because Saddam wanted Pan-Arabism. In this context the Iranians, as non-Arabs, are natural allies. Also, Iran Contra apparently made some sort of slush fund for the Likud Party. It may be that Trump’s “October surprise” will be a Covid cure so he can be seen as a Savior, rather than nuclear war. However, some of the original SARS (Covid) vaccines produced antibodies but created serious lung damaged when the mice and monkeys were “challenged” with the actual virus. So, the vaccine may seem safe and not be. Another twist is that Friends of Falun Gong who run Epoch Times are big Trump supporters. I think they want the Chinese Government overthrown. The head of the Friends of Falun Gong is named Adler, which in the US is Jewish. Some religious people believe we can’t see too far into the future because we wouldn’t be able to deal with it if we knew in advance. There are a couple of hymns like that. Anyway, Australia appears a far safer place to be on all counts. Apart from the fires, which are occurring in the US anyway, wish I were there! And, I hope your child went home to safety there, at least for now.

        Comment by miningawareness | May 11, 2020

      • Such a lot to think about. I think that I am glad to be living in Australia. It really is a kind of sleepy hollow, protected as it is, by the Murdoch media, from ever hearing any real news. Thank you – my child is still in NY, but safe.

        Of course Trump is not personally the enemy of China. But – hating and blaming China is a pretty good distraction from the economic and health mess that Trump’s administration is causing.

        I don’t think that Trump cares about anything at all, except strutting about in the glare of publicity.

        Comment by Christina MacPherson | May 11, 2020

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