Radiation Warning Signs Placed on Cheyenne River
by Shelley Bluejay Pierce, Native American Times Correspondent, July 29, 2007
Radiation warning signs were posted on Wednesday, July 18, 2007 in the small town of Red Shirt, South Dakota which lies on the northwest corner of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Several of these signs were placed warning people of the high nuclear radiation levels found in the Cheyenne River.
Several weeks ago Everitt Poor Thunder, a spiritual and community leader in Red Shirt, asked Defenders of the Black Hills, an environmental organization, whether the Cheyenne River water could be used to irrigate a community garden. A local well could not be used as it was found to be radioactive and warning signs surround that structure. The water well taps into the Inyan Kara aquifer that also contains the Lakota and Fall River formations, making up an extremely large aquifer of water supplies for many regions.
Residents of Red Shirt occupy a village site that is thousands of years old to the Oglala Tetuwan (Sioux) people. Many have lived here all of their lives, growing gardens with water taken from the Cheyenne River and fishing for catfish, bass, and turtles. In the summer months, the river is used for swimming and other recreational pursuits.
A water sample taken from the Cheyenne River was sent to a laboratory and the results revealed levels of alpha radiation above the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Maximum Contaminant Level. Alpha radiation causes harm when ingested hence the warning signs were placed to warn people of the dangers in the Cheyenne River.
The portion of the Cheyenne River Basin that lies in southwestern South Dakota drains about 16,500 square miles within the boundaries of the state. The area in this basin includes part of the Black Hills and Badlands, rangeland, irrigated cropland, and mining areas. After traversing the western half of the state from southwest to northeast, the Cheyenne River flows into Lake Oahe, a reservoir on the Missouri River.
Previous efforts remove the radiation in the water at Red Shirt have been unsuccessful. Drinking water is piped in, or residents must drive 25 miles to the little town of Hermosa to buy water. The Cheyenne River has dried up approximately one mile from Red Shirt and tests of the river bottom soil by Defenders of the Black Hills are pending. Initial tests using a Geiger counter revealed more than double the amount of normal background elevations for radiation.
South Dakota news reports recently referred to a DENR report and stated that uranium is naturally occurring in that area which is said to account for the radiation levels in the water.
“If that was the case, there would not have been villages there for thousands of years. There would have been no fish or any aquatic life previously in this river. We sampled the river with nets for aquatic life and found only 2 crayfish and about 10 minnows in more than 100 yards of the river. In essence, it's a dead river. There are two endangered species that use this River: the Sturgeon chubb, a small fish, and the Bald Eagle,” explained Charmaine White Face, founder and Coordinator of Defenders of the Black Hills.
According to published information in the The 2006 South Dakota Integrated Report For Surface Water Quality Assessment the Cheyenne River water quality continues to be generally poor. The lower Cheyenne drainage, in general, contains a high percentage of erodible cropland and rangeland in west central South Dakota. Historical mining records for the state show more than 4,000 exploratory uranium mining holes, some large enough for a man to fall into, in the southwestern Black Hills with an additional 3,000 holes just 10 miles west of the town of Belle Fourche, SD. These mining holes go to depths of 600 feet.
At a meeting for the Defenders of the Black Hills on Feb 26th 2005, discussions centered on the radiation levels in some areas reported at a staggering 1,400 times higher than the ordinary background radiation on the Grand River in the Cave Hills and the adverse affects to the villages on the Standing Rock Indian Reservations. Also discussed was the high proportion of cancer related illnesses and birth defects especially in the small community of Rock Creek.
“There are also hundreds of abandoned uranium mines in Wyoming whose runoff comes down the Cheyenne River, and also 29 abandoned mines in the southwestern Black Hills, all upstream of Red Shirt Village. One of the largest open-pit abandoned uranium mines in the southern Black Hills is a square mile and its runoff goes into the Cheyenne River,” explained Charmaine White Face.
Most recently, a Canadian mining company, Powertech, began drilling uranium exploratory wells in the Dewey Burdock area northwest of Edgemont. Defenders of the Black Hills battled in court against the drilling permit allowing Powertech to drill 155 more exploratory wells at depths of 500-600 feet in the southwestern Black Hills but the Courts allowed the drilling after denying the appeal. Powertech currently has 4,000 uncapped, and unmarked uranium exploratory wells drilled previously. The mining company plans on doing In Situ Recovery (ISR) of uranium from the Lakota and Fall River aquifers. In Situ Recovery was formerly known as In Situ Leach (ISL) mining.
During the ISR process, a solution to dissolve the uranium is poured down the wells and the dissolved uranium brought back up to the surface. The uranium is separated from the remaining radioactive waste solution that is then reinjected into the aquifer after being held in waste ponds on the surface.
According to Powertech's mining application, each exploratory drill hole "will have a small excavated mud pit that will be approximately 12 feet by 5 feet" and 10 feet deep.
Among the concerns of the environmental groups are the possibility of overflow from the mud pits with the sudden rain showers that occur in the Black Hills. One of the aquifers empties directly into the Cheyenne River and is used by many ranchers to water their livestock. Among the deeper aquifers of concern is the Madison that provides water for many western South Dakota communities.
“A list of uranium mining facts provided online by our organization, Defenders of the Black Hills, reveals a long history of abuses regarding uranium and coal mining in the Upper Midwest region. In an area of the USA that has been called “the Bread Basket of the World,” more than forty years of mining have released radioactive polluted dust and water runoff from the hundreds of abandoned open pit uranium mines, processing sites, underground nuclear power stations, and waste dumps. Our grain supplies and our livestock production in this area have used the water and have been exposed to the remainders of this mining. We may be seeing global affects, not just localized affects, to the years of uranium mining” concluded Charmaine White Face.
In another article by Charmaine White Face, she provides a brief outline to uranium mining -- calling it America's Secret Chernobyl [below]. The term Chernobyl has an interesting origin. In Russian, Chernobyl translates to Wormwood. Wormwood relates to several aromatic plants of the genus Artemisia, especially A. absinthium, native to Europe, yielding a bitter extract used in making absinthe and in flavoring certain wines -- that is adds a bitter taste. In classical literature, wormwood was metaphorical for bitter sorrow. When history writes its review of our foray into nuclear power, will we be regarded with "bitter sorrow"?