Radioactive Legacy



Four decades after its first uranium mining boom ended, the Edgemont area remains scarred by unreclaimed mines, buried radioactive waste and health concerns.

The story of that first boom has gone largely untold and unreckoned with, even as regulators consider approving a new kind of mining in the same place.

Will the town fare better this time? Perhaps, if the lessons of the past are uncovered and heeded. Here, in five parts over the coming days, is the untold story of Edgemont’s radioactive legacy.

Radioactive Legacy: Introduction

Series written and reported by Seth Tupper

Four million tons of radioactive waste are buried under a grassy field three miles to the southeast of Edgemont in far southwestern South Dakota.

North of Edgemont, two massive abandoned mines, the biggest measuring a mile across, scar the range land.

They are the byproducts of a uranium mining boom, and because the waste is nine feet underground and the mines are too far from the roads to be seen, they're largely forgotten. So, too, are the other ill effects of the boom that took place a half-century ago.

Locals may remember the jobs, and the bustling processing plant. They perhaps never knew about the out-of-state tycoons who pulled millions in profits from the ground, and then left a big mess behind. And they tend to forget or overlook the abandoned mill waste, the workers sickened by dust and radiation, and the abandoned mines and possible environmental contamination.

Now those old buried memories are being stirred by two very different yet confluent developments: a proposal for a new method of uranium mining in the same area; and new federal studies of the environmental damage caused by the old mines.

Together, they form the latest chapters in a story that continues to unfold some six decades after it began amid the clamor and chaos of a yellowcake gold rush.


Radioactive Legacy, Part 1: A yellowcake gold rush


Chris Huber, Journal staff

This aerial photograph taken this summer shows the massive expanse of the abandoned Darrow Mine northwest of Edgemont. This mine was one of many that sprung up after uranium was discovered in the area in the 1950s.

Earl Reed
Minneapolis Sunday Tribune photo, Courtesy Karl E. Mundt Historical & Educational Foundation and Archives

Earl Read, a mining foreman in Edgemont, holds up some of the ore from a mining site in 1955. Edgemont became a boom town when uranium was being mined, but went bust after the market collapsed and the big company running the industry pulled out.

 

On a warm fall day, Oct. 5, 1954, in the Red Canyon region north of Edgemont, a woman stood in front of an advancing bulldozer.

But unlike most days in the history of the remote southwestern edge of the Black Hills, where dry plains meet pine-covered mountains and sandstone rocks jut among the grass and sage, all was not quiet. For three years, the natural beauty and stillness had been punctured by jackhammers, dynamite explosions and the roar of heavy machinery.

Uranium was the era’s new gold, and the rush was on.

Eugenia Chord, the woman in front of the bulldozer, had found some interlopers on her mining claim and told them to leave. They refused.

According to her, the dozer operator moved the machine’s blade back and forth menacingly as she stood in front of it. She held her ground.

That’s when, according to Chord, a man named James Mullen shouted an instruction to the dozer operator.

“Run over her!”

The operator refused. Chord said Mullen replaced the operator on the driver’s seat and drove the machine to within a ruler’s length of her body before one of the other men talked him down.

Such was life during the greed-fueled birth of uranium mining near Edgemont, according to a Rapid City Journal account of Chord’s testimony during a 1955 trial. She and her husband, Roy, sued Mullen for claim-jumping and won.

Uranium mine near Edgemont, SD
Lee Enterprises Graphics

The rush began in 1951 and the boom lasted about 20 years. During those two decades, the town came to be dominated by a massive, Chicago-based holding company known as the Susquehanna Corporation and two of its subsidiaries, Mines Development and Susquehanna-Western.

The marriage between Susquehanna and Edgemont brought the town a temporary economic boost, but the divorce left it suffering economic, human health and environmental effects that still fester all these decades later.

It all began with atomic bombs, a discovery in a canyon wall, and a meeting between a young entrepreneur and a cunning financier.

Bombs and a bonanza

The Atomic Age exploded into being when the United States dropped its A-bombs on Japan in 1945.

Americans were impressed by the terrifyingly destructive power of the bombs and the seemingly boundless potential of atomic — later to be called “nuclear” — energy. In 1946, with the war over, Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act and empowered a new civilian board, the Atomic Energy Commission, to oversee development of nuclear weapons and energy.

Learn the basics of uranium

A nuclear-arms race with the Soviet Union ensued and the commission clamored to find reliable domestic sources of uranium, the naturally occurring element that is the basic ingredient of nuclear bombs and reactors. Most of the uranium used in America's atomic program up to that time had come from Africa.

A massive domestic mining effort was needed, because even a good deposit of ore might contain less than 1 percent uranium, and that uranium might consist of less than 1 percent of the U-235 isotope needed for nuclear bombs. At those ratios, millions of tons of ore had to be mined to make just one or two bombs.

To kick-start the mining industry, the Atomic Energy Commission established buying-stations near ore deposits, set guaranteed minimum prices for acceptable grades of ore, and offered incentives including a $10,000 bonus for the first 20 short tons from any newly discovered deposit.

Wendel playing guitar
Courtesy Edgemont Public Library

South Dakota Gov. Joe Foss takes the first scoop of dirt at the Edgemont uranium mill site during the groundbreaking ceremony June 24, 1955. The mining of uranium was seen as a coup for southwestern South Dakota, and while dozens of jobs were temporarily created, today there are abandoned uranium mines and 4 million tons of buried radioactive waste in the Edgemont area.

Those actions birthed a sudden and lucrative uranium market, and prospectors scrambled over the rocky terrain of the West. Buying-stations were soon accepting hundreds of tons of ore daily.

In 1951, with the uranium craze already sweeping the West, Rapid City resident Jerry Brennan found a uranium deposit in the Edgemont area.

“It was while he was studying Indian pictographs on the walls of Craven Canyon,” reads a 1950s story by U.S. News & World Report, referring to an Edgemont-area formation, “that he noticed some exposed sandstone with the greenish-yellow stain that resembled uranium-bearing carnotite."

The article noted: “Mr. Brennan staked claims and the rush was on.”

More finds followed and sparked a wide-scale “frenzied hunt,” further reports said. At first, individual prospectors found ore deposits in canyon walls and used tools as rudimentary as pick axes and wheelbarrows to mine it.

Prospectors could stake claims on government land for small fees, and they could seek claims on private land. Mining laws dictated that landowners could negotiate for compensation, but if they didn’t own all the mineral rights under their land, they could not deny access to miners. That created a tense environment.

“I think there was probably some guns drawn a few times,” said lifelong Edgemont-area rancher Donald Spencer, now 79.

Donald Spencer, in his own words: "They really scarred the country."

For some lucky landowners, a uranium strike meant a sudden path to solvency. Spencer estimates his grandfather made $50,000 from mining royalties after barely scratching out a living since homesteading in 1904.

Mill rumors grow with ore piles

The first miners in the Edgemont area shipped their ore 500 miles by rail to a buying-station in Colorado. In late 1952, the Atomic Energy Commission contracted with a private company to open a buying-station in Edgemont.

Uranium mine near Edgemont, SD
Lee Enterprises Graphics

According to a 1953 Rapid City Journal story, the price paid for Edgemont-area ore averaged $30 per ton. By 1954, newspapers were reporting that a stockpile of 30,000 tons had accumulated. That pile would have been worth $900,000 at the average price, or nearly $8 million in inflation-adjusted 2015 value.

With so much ore on the ground and so much more underground, Edgemont became a candidate for a mill to extract uranium from the ore and process it into yellowcake for nuclear bombs.

In 1954, southwestern South Dakota and northeast Wyoming were abuzz with rumors that a multimillion-dollar mill would be built in the area. Communities rumored to be in the hunt included Edgemont, and Moorcroft and Newcastle in Wyoming.

Behind the scenes, miners, entrepreneurs, politicians and community boosters scrambled to influence the federal government’s site-selection process. Newspapers serving the communities published derogatory stories about rival towns.

The prize was a mill that would cost $2.5 million to build and create an estimated 50 to 100 full-time jobs.

Finally, during the early spring of 1955, word leaked out: The Atomic Energy Commission had selected Mines Development of Colorado — a company unknown to most locals — to build a mill. And the location would be Edgemont.

News of the town’s selection was greeted with soaring rhetoric.

L.S. Curtis, president of the Edgemont Chamber of Commerce, was quoted as saying, “Every man, woman and child in town will benefit.”

Edgemont’s city leaders staged a “U Day” celebration to coincide with the mill’s groundbreaking on June 24, 1955. Gov. Joe Foss delivered the keynote address.

A ride with dad
Courtesy Edgemont Library

Allen Gray, head of Mines Development, the company that built a uranium mill in Edgemont, speaks at the groundbreaking on June 24, 1955. Locals celebrated the prospect of a mining industry that brought dozens of jobs, but in later years it left behind abandoned mines, radioactive wastes and declining health for some workers.

“Edgemont may well become the Pittsburgh of the Atomic Age,” the governor was quoted as saying, referring to that city's steel industry.

Foss, who had been a World War II flying ace and later became president of the National Rifle Association and commissioner of the American Football League, also manned an Allis-Chalmers tractor-loader and took the first scoop of dirt at the mill site, near the confluence of the Cheyenne River and Cottonwood Creek east of town.

Corporation in a hat

The residual glow from U Day began to wear off as locals noticed that construction wasn’t starting. Work finally began in August, about two months after the groundbreaking.

Construction was one-fourth finished in January 1956 when the work halted and 40 or so men left the job site. Gordon A. Steele, an automobile dealer in Hot Springs, heard about it and sent a letter to then-Sen. Karl Mundt, R-S.D., claiming that “the guy who is building the mill wouldn’t sign any more checks.”

That “guy” was Allen Gray, a 30-something former instructor at the Colorado School of Mines whose Mines Development company was chosen by the federal government to build and operate the mill. (The Steele letter and other letters to and from Mundt were made available for this report by the Karl E. Mundt Historical & Educational Foundation Archives in Madison.)

Art Ludwig, an Edgemont miner who submitted an unsuccessful mill bid, fired off his own letter to Mundt, alleging that Mines Development was “an organization which had its office in Allen Gray’s hat, until long after the contract was let, and which for many months was a corporation on paper with little or no money.”

Ludwig claimed a construction company had spent $200,000 of its own money to begin building the mill and had not received the expected reimbursement from Mines Development, which Ludwig heard was “in no position to make it.”

Ludwig followed with another letter to Mundt citing a report that Gray was searching for financial backers and was turned down by “Corn Exchange Bank, Hanover National Bank & Trust, New York Life Insurance, and the Prudential Life Ins. Co.”

Years later, a Denver Post profile of the babyfaced Gray did not specifically identify those firms but quoted Gray telling a similar story.

“I had been turned down four times by big companies, but I figured I’d give it one more try,” he told the Post.

That try was expended on J. Patrick Lannan, a Chicago financier in his early 50s. Lannan had amassed a fortune from investments in multiple companies and was an associate of the Kennedy family. After his death decades later, a pair of Chicago Tribune writers opined that Lannan made latter-day corporate raiders “look like Boy Scouts.”

Donald Spencer
Chris Huber, Journal staff

Rural Edgemont rancher Donald Spencer, 79, remembers the uranium mining rush of the 1950s. "It was a wild deal," he said. "People were every place, bulldozerin' the country."

In other words, Lannan knew a hot deal when he saw one, and this had all the makings. The ore was piling up at Edgemont and awaiting processing at the partially constructed mill, and the federal government stood ready to buy all the extracted uranium.

Lannan and Gray reached an agreement. The full terms did not emerge publicly, but it was soon reported that a holding company of which Lannan was a major stockholder, Chicago North Shore System Inc., took over Gray’s Mines Development for $2.5 million and retained Gray to run it from an office in Denver.

To the relief of observers in Edgemont, the deal allowed construction of the mill to restart after a 5-day stoppage. But it also meant Edgemont’s uranium industry would be dominated from the start by a Chicago-based holding company and its subsidiaries.

Within five months of the deal, Chicago North Shore’s name was changed to The Susquehanna Corporation; within two years, Lannan orchestrated a shareholder revolt and installed himself as Susquehanna's president and CEO.

“Susquehanna” turned out to be an interesting name choice. Twenty-three years hence, the U.S. nuclear-power industry would suffer a catastrophic setback from the partial reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River.

An empire founded on Edgemont

The Edgemont mill was such a success that Susquehanna Corp. and its subsidiaries dove deeper into the mining business.

By 1962, Gray, the former college instructor who bet his future on a shaky bid to build the Edgemont mill, had risen to become a top executive in a Susquehanna empire that included uranium mills in Riverton, Wyo., and Falls City, Texas; several uranium mines containing an estimated $20 million worth of ore; a shale reserve and plant in California; a vanadium plant in Utah; and a limestone claim under development in Alaska.

The corporation reported total 1961 revenues of $26.1 million, which would be worth $210 million today after adjustments for inflation. And it all started with the Edgemont mill, which was owned and operated by Susquehanna Corp.’s subsidiary Mines Development. Another Susquehanna subsidiary, Susquehanna-Western, operated mines in the Edgemont area.

A ride with dad
Chris Huber, Journal staff

Yellow-tinted dirt and rock sit at the site of the former Triangle Uranium Mine north of Edgemont in June. Remnants of the mining boom from a half-century ago still remain, including the abandoned Triangle mine and its larger neighbor, the abandoned Darrow Mine.

As Susquehanna Corp. centralized control of Edgemont’s uranium industry, other mining operators suffered. In 1958, local miner Roy Chord, who’d happily driven a car carrying Gray and Gov. Foss in a parade on the day of the mill groundbreaking in 1955, was now complaining that small-time miners were being squeezed out. He was careful not to publicly blame Susquehanna, which he needed to buy his ore. But he said the government had capped the mill’s production so that bigger miners filled the mill’s needs, with no need for additional ore from smaller producers, many of them local.

Gray, unlike Chord, did not have to tiptoe around the issue. While visiting the mill with Lannan and other Susquehanna executives in 1959, he declared to reporters that “the day of the Sunday uranium miner is now over.” Pick-axe and wheelbarrow mining had been replaced by exploratory drilling rigs, dynamite blasts and giant machines that ripped huge pits in the ground.

Gray predicted that the future of uranium lay in selling it to power producers. He cited Atomic Energy Commission statistics that projected U.S. electric power requirements would double by 1980 and half of the new demand would be met by atomic power plants.

In reality, 1980 found nuclear power accounting for only 11 percent of the country’s electrical generation.

As the 1980s dawned, Gray had long since been pushed out of Susquehanna Corp. by more of Lannan’s maneuvering. The country’s nuclear-power industry was reeling from the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979. Edgemont was saddled with a shuttered mill and its associated waste piles and abandoned mines. And people in uranium towns throughout the West were taking stock of their health amid growing concerns about their exposure to radiation and lung-damaging mining and milling dust.

Next: “Danger in the mines and mill,” a look at the lives of those who toiled in Edgemont’s uranium industry.


Radioactive Legacy, Part 2: Danger in the mines and mill


Chris Huber, Journal staff

John McKnight sits at the kitchen table in his rural Edgemont home during an interview in May. McKnight worked as a uranium miner and mill worker for 33 years.

 

Thirty-three years of toil in Edgemont’s uranium industry have blurred together in the memory of 87-year-old John McKnight. 

But when he sits at his kitchen table and peers out the window through time, one day stands out.

It was the 1960s. Mines Development Inc., the owner of the uranium mill in Edgemont and a subsidiary of the Chicago-based holding company Susquehanna Corp., had added a circuit to the mill to extract steel-hardening vanadium from the same ore that was already being mined for uranium.

McKnight’s job included keeping an eye on tanks that contained something he remembers as “chlorine.” A diagram of the vanadium circuit reveals it might have been sodium chlorate.

On that memorable day in the ’60s, McKnight went to examine the tanks and didn’t realize somebody had already started the chemical process.

“I got a hell of a whiff of that,” McKnight recalled. “I couldn’t breathe for days and days and days.”

Difficulty breathing is a symptom of sodium chlorate inhalation, which can be fatal. “I thought I was going to die there for a day or two,” McKnight recaclled.

Hear John McKnight tell the sodium chlorate story in his own words

The experience was representative of the daily perils that some uranium workers faced. Beginning in 1951, with the discovery of uranium ore in an Edgemont-area canyon wall and over the course of the next four decades, locals worked in jobs including prospecting, mining, milling and, finally, decommissioning the mill and burying 4 million tons of radioactive waste.

During those years, at least one man died in a mine accident and another lost an arm at the mill.

uranium mill
Photo courtesy Trails, Trains and Pioneers Museum

This photo shows an inside view of the uranium mill in Edgemont in the 1960s.

The mining industry temporarily boosted the local economy, lined the pockets of faraway executives and helped keep the federal government stocked with uranium, the key ingredient in the country’s Cold War buildup of nuclear weapons.

But throughout Edgemont’s mining era, there was little to no government regulation. After the industry’s collapse, Edgemont and its economy were left to shrivel in the shadow of the defunct mill and its giant radioactive waste piles, while open-pit mines remain abandoned north of town.

Now, as regulatory agencies consider approving a proposed new method known as "in situ" to mine uranium near Edgemont, there aren’t many people left to tell the story of the first boom. But the tales that do get told reveal the serious risks, and sometimes real consequences, faced by many.

Life in the mines

One of the people who got an especially close look at uranium mining is Donald Spencer, a 79-year-old who has ranched all of his life north of Edgemont. He worked in the uranium mines as a young man and now owns land that includes an abandoned open-pit mine.

Spencer’s ranch is in a ruggedly beautiful area on the southwestern edge of the Black Hills, where vistas extend for miles. The diverse geography is home to pine forests, canyons, sandstone outcrops, dry prairie grass, sage and, during certain springtimes, clover that paints the pastures yellow.

On the wall in Spencer’s home, there are more representations of horses than people. His lean frame is bent from a life of labor, but he continues to ride horses regularly and says his aches and pains subside when he’s in the saddle. When he talks, it’s the kind of authentic Western speech that Clint Eastwood has spent a career emulating — squinty-eyed, sparing, gruff and full of meaning.

At the site of the old Triangle Mine on Spencer’s land, the only sound is the wind whipping through the hardy stands of grass that sprout intermittently from the reddish soil. But during the 1950s and 1960s, the area was alive with men and machines.

Spencer’s family was part of that scene. Prospectors leased land and dug the Triangle Mine into his grandfather’s land, and Spencer guesses his grandfather made $50,000 on royalties from the uranium that was removed.

Donald Spencer
Chris Huber, Journal staff

Edgemont rancher Donald Spencer worked as a uranium miner decades ago to help supplement his income on his ranch. He owns land near Edgement that includes a former open-pit uranium mine.

“He kind of scratched out a living all of his life until they hit that mine,” Spencer said. “That was the first time he ever had any money.”

As a young man, Spencer had financial difficulties of his own. He needed extra income and took a job hauling uranium ore from the mines about 15 miles northwest of Edgemont to the mill in town.

“Four or five trips a day,” Spencer recalled. “I got it figured out one time that I shifted gears 600 times a day.”

He remembers giant machines crawling over the land like busy ants and digging pits in the ground, ripping ore from the sides of the pits and hauling it to waiting semi-trucks with belly-dump trailers. In the deep pit of the Triangle Mine, Spencer said, workers also tunneled shafts into the rock.

Spencer remembers a 26-year-old man named LaWayne Forman who backed a loader into a shaft. Part of the ceiling collapsed and crushed Forman; a newspaper report from the time said the accident occurred shortly after a dynamite blast. It was the only reported fatal accident of Edgemont’s uranium-mining era.

“It’s very strange they didn’t kill a lot more people with these shafts caving in,” Spencer said. “It was soft rock.”

One of Spencer’s clearest memories revolves around the use of dynamite to loosen the rock. A series of holes was jackhammered into the rock at precise depths, and each hole was filled with explosive sticks.

“You tamped ’er full, put five or six in there,” Spencer said.

Then the miners retreated and remotely set off the dynamite.

“A goofy guy I worked with, he’d count them blasts, and when he thought the last one went off, he just had to go see what he’d done,” Spencer said. “Well, I wasn’t interested in gettin’ there that quick. I wasn’t sure he could count that good.”

Locals like Spencer joined up temporarily for the jobs and extra income, but many also continued to operate their ranches on the side.

All these years later, Spencer appreciates the quiet that has settled over the countryside.

“You haven’t ever had a headache,” he said, “until you’ve had a dynamite headache.”

Life in the mill

When haulers like Spencer brought ore into Edgemont, they dumped it at the mill for processing.

On the mill’s fifth anniversary in 1961, mill workers numbered 76 and the mill’s total annual payroll was $338,000. That equates to average pay of $4,448 annually, which would be about $35,500 in inflation-adjusted 2015 dollars.

Many of the mill workers were ranchers who viewed the extra income as a way to stay on the land.

uranium mill
Photo courtesy Edgemont Tribune

Mines Development Inc. employees, from left, Harold Webb, Marvin Littleton, Phillip Peter, Carl Bennett, Gerald Richards and Ottis McGuire, are shown in this photo in front of the Edgemont office in 1961.

John McKnight, who suffered a chemical inhalation incident at the mill in the 1960s, was blunt about his reason for taking a mill job.

“Starvation out here on the ranch,” he said.

The mill was alongside a north-south set of railroad tracks on the east side of Edgemont, next to Cottonwood Creek less than a mile south of its confluence with the Cheyenne River. The 213-acre campus included a collection of high, steel-covered, industrial-looking buildings, plus ever-growing waste piles and ponds.

Ore arrived by the truckload from Edgemont-area mines and by train from mines in other states. The ore consisted mostly of gray-to-black, football-sized chunks of rock, some of it with plainly visible yellowish streaks indicative of uranium.

Up to 400 tons of ore per day was processed. The ore was crushed and ground into sand and mixed with water to make a slurry, and then treated with sulfuric acid to dissolve the uranium.

Next, the slurry underwent a separation process to remove the waste sand, called “sand tailings,” which was discharged to outdoor piles that continued to grow to 40 or 50 feet in height throughout the life of the mill. There was apparently no plan to bury or otherwise dispose of the tailings, and a lack of regulation relieved the company from what would turn out to be — years later for the federal government and for a different company — a significant expense.

After the sandy tailings were separated, the remaining slime was sent through a “resin-in-pulp” process which, as described in a late 1950s newspaper article, contained chemical resin beads with “an affinity for uranium ions.” The beads attracted the uranium, and also vanadium, like water softener beads attract minerals. The remaining waste slime after the uranium extraction was called “slime tailings” and was sent to holding ponds.

Finally, the uranium was stripped from the resin beads, precipitated, filtered and dried to form triuranium octoxide (U3O8). Before the drying, the yellowish product came out of a press in cake form and was called yellowcake. Before packaging, the yellowcake was broken down into a fine powder.

John McKnight
Chris Huber, Journal staff

John McKnight, 87, said that he began working at the uranium mill in Edgemont to avoid "starvation" on the ranch.

The yellowcake was packaged in 55-gallon drums and sent out of state for further refinement before being used in the development and production of nuclear weapons.

Men including John McKnight handled those 55-gallon drums. Uranium is the heaviest naturally occurring element on earth, and the drums each weighed about 900 pounds.

McKnight has since had surgeries on both shoulders, both knees, a hip and his back. Though ranching was no picnic, he traces many of his physical ailments to the mill.

“There was no mechanical work,” he said of his job. “Just human power.”

He thinks his hearing suffered, too, from the constant noise in the mill. Workers wore earplugs and goggles, and overalls that they washed in company machines after their shift.

Other mill workers suffered ill effects to their health, but perhaps none so immediately debilitating as John Curl, who was 29 years old when he lost an arm in a 1960s accident at the mill. Curl still lives in Edgemont but declined to be interviewed.

Donald Spencer
Photo courtesy Edgemont Tribune

Heavy machinery is driven at the site of one of the uranium mines outside of Edgemont in 1955.

Concern for workers grows

In 1960, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission ruled that Mines Development Inc., the owner of the Edgemont mill, had failed to conduct airborne radioactivity tests in areas frequented by employees and ordered the company to begin a testing program.

Except for rare instances like that when the federal government intervened, uranium mine workers and mill workers labored through the 1950s and 1960s with little protection from the physical rigors and health risks associated with their work.

By the late 1960s and early ’70s, the U.S. government had more uranium than it needed and ended its guaranteed purchases. After that decision, uranium demand from the private nuclear-power industry was not enough to sustain the mines and mills that dotted the West. Meanwhile, environmentalism was flowering among the social movements of the ’60s and ’70s, and Americans were growing concerned about the piles of radioactive sand tailings at mill sites.

It all spelled doom for the uranium industry and Edgemont. The boom turned to bust during the 1970s as Susquehanna Corp., which controlled Edgemont’s uranium industry, sold its interests and fled, leaving behind abandoned mines and radioactive mill tailings. There were no reclamation laws that required the corporation to clean up its mess, and although the federal government eventually saw to the decommissioning of the mill, some abandoned mines remain to this day.

Concern for the health of mine workers and mill workers was slower to coalesce. It wasn’t until 1990 that Congress passed and President George H.W. Bush signed legislation — the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act — that created a fund to reimburse uranium-industry workers who suffered increased cancer risks from long-term radiation exposure, or other problems including respiratory ailments associated with mining and milling dust.

That fund still exists, and individual applicants can receive up to $100,000. About $2 billion has been awarded nationwide, including $5.175 million to 59 people with South Dakota addresses.

During a debate over amendments to the law in the late 1990s that expanded eligibility to states including South Dakota, a Sturgis woman, Sharon Kane, wrote a letter to then-U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., which was entered into the Congressional Record. Kane said her late husband, Joe, worked at the Edgemont uranium mill from 1959 to 1970. He suffered upper respiratory problems that the Kanes blamed on his mill job before he died of bone-marrow cancer at age 53 in 1990. 

Daschle, in using the Kanes' example to argue for broader eligibility to the compensation fund, told his Senate colleagues, "It is difficult for me to understand why or how our country let this happen."

Despite all the money paid out by the fund, some people in Edgemont have been hesitant to seek compensation. Spencer has never applied. McKnight put it off until 2011, when his application was denied.

“You do not appear to have a work-related disease at this time,” said the denial letter from a testing clinic in Colorado.

That was despite a medical record that includes shoulder, knee, hip and back surgeries, prostate and skin cancer, and diminished hearing.

And that chemical-inhalation episode from the 1960s? When McKnight went looking for the old medical records, a clinic had discarded them. So there’s no proof it ever happened.

“It was a terrible job,” McKnight said. “If I’da had an ounce a brains, I’da quit.”


Radioactive Legacy: For some, uranium was like gold


Chris Huber, Journal staff

Clarence Anderson started working in the uranium mill in Edgement when he was 23. He worked his way up to mill manager while it was still in production and eventually oversaw the decommissioning.

 

In some ways, uranium was good for Edgemont. Clarence Anderson is living proof of that.

Anderson, who’s a spry and gregarious 78-year-old, went to work in the Edgemont uranium mill when he was 23 in 1960.

“I worked through every phase of the milling operation,” Anderson said. “It was a great experience.”

He got his start, in his words, “taking out the garbage.” He climbed the ranks all the way to mill manager and then worked with garbage of a different kind when, in the 1980s, he oversaw the mill’s decommissioning and the burying of its 4 million tons of radioactive waste.

After the decommissioning project, he moved on to oversee mining operations for a company throughout the American West before retiring and coming back to Edgemont.

The town he returned to was smaller than the one he left. In a sign of the times since the end of the uranium boom, membership in the local Catholic parish has dwindled to the point that it shares a priest with other area parishes. Anderson lives in the Edgemont parish rectory and helps care for the church building and grounds.

Clarence Anderson on mining: "As we go along, we learn."

Anderson and his wife raised a family in Edgemont. He was never concerned about risks to their health from living near mines and a mill.

“I wouldn’t have lived here for a minute if I’d have thought it was hazardous,” he said.

Yet he has applied to a fund established by Congress as part of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which provides up to $100,000 to individuals who have medical ailments related to their work in the uranium industry. Earlier this summer, he was still waiting to see if he qualifies.

Edgemont Uranium Mining
Lee Enterprises Graphic

Edgemont uranium mining in the 1950s and '60s.

“I have a possible health problem right now that is probably related to maybe dust and silicosis, but maybe not — a bronchial-type thing. But also," he quips, "I have a health problem called being 78 years old.”

Anderson is proudly protective of the uranium industry’s reputation and supportive of more mining. While talking about new mining methods, like the in situ uranium mines proposed for southwestern South Dakota, he sits on the edge of his chair and gestures emphatically. He's conversant in the science — so much so that it seems like he never left the industry.

Anderson disputes widespread claims of the uranium industry’s link to heightened cancer rates and said many cancer victims he’s known in Edgemont had a family history of the disease. Radiation, he said, never concerned him as much as the dust and chemicals in the mill.

Critics have been too harsh in their judgment of the Edgemont uranium era, Anderson contends. He acknowledges that some of the old mining and milling practices look bad when viewed through the lens of modern knowledge, but he said less was known back then and companies followed what meager environmental and safety regulations there were.

“As we go along,” Anderson said, “we learn and we do things differently.”

Next, “The boom goes bust," on how Susquehanna Corporation departs and people in Edgemont are left to deal with radioactive waste, abandoned mines and lingering health risks.


Radioactive Legacy, Part 3: The boom goes bust


Photo courtesy National Archives at Denver

Uranium tailings are piled up outside the mill in Edgemont in this 1966 photo. Four million tons of the yellowish, ultra-fine, sand-like radioactive tailings had to be buried outside of Edgemont as a result of the mill's nearly two decades of operation.

 

In 1980, the Brafford family of Edgemont learned their house, or the land around it, was probably giving them cancer.

That’s what they claimed in a lawsuit against Susquehanna Corporation, the Chicago company that ran Edgemont’s uranium industry.

Before the Braffords moved in, someone used sand-like radioactive tailings from the mill owned by Susquehanna’s subsidiary, Mines Development, as fill material around the home’s foundation. The tailings gave off potentially cancer-causing radiation far in excess of regulatory limits.

Susquehanna tried to get the Braffords’ lawsuit tossed out. When that didn’t work, the giant holding company paid the family to drop it.

That was 1984. The same year, the author of a Life magazine story on Edgemont claimed the amount of the settlement was “believed to be in excess of a quarter of a million dollars.”

Andrew Reid, who was a member of the Braffords’ legal team and was quoted in the Life story, remembers the reaction of the Susquehanna lawyers.

“They were yelling bloody murder on that one,” said Reid, of Colorado, in a recent interview with the Journal. “They were afraid everybody in Edgemont was going to sue them.”

Clarence Anderson
Chris Huber, Journal staff

Clarence Anderson walks out to look over the site of the Edgemont uranium mill decommissioning project. Anderson worked in the mill and oversaw the 1980s decommissioning project.

So, two months after the Life article was published, Susquehanna Corp. dragged the parties back before a judge who granted a petition to put a confidential seal on the settlement agreement.

The flood of additional litigation feared by the company never materialized. By the time another Edgemont family, the Bollwerks, sued Susquehanna in the early 1990s, claiming the company concealed information about the health risks associated with working in the mill, the corporation had divested itself of the subsidiaries that owned the mill and associated mines. Thus, a judge ruled, Susquehanna could not be held liable and the lawsuit was thrown out.

Few other legal challenges to Susquehanna were ever mounted, which meant the Brafford settlement was perhaps the only time that the holding company was held accountable for the radioactive waste, abandoned mines and human health risks it dumped on Edgemont after nearly 20 years of dominating the town’s uranium industry, and taking big profits from the minerals in the land and the people who dug them up.

“They stole from the town and the people, in my mind,” Reid said.

The boom peaks

Susquehanna, then based in Chicago, entered the uranium business with its construction of the Edgemont mill in 1956. Business was apparently good, because the holding company and its subsidiaries quickly expanded their mining interests to include other uranium holdings in the West.

By 1961, the corporation reported total annual revenues of $26.1 million, which would be $210 million today after adjustments for inflation.

Uranium Mining Boom
Lee Enterprises Graphic

U.S. uranium oxide production between 1949 and 2011

That same year, as the people of Edgemont organized a Uranium Day celebration to mark the mill’s fifth anniversary, the facility was operating seven days a week with 76 employees and an annual payroll of $338,000. The mill had purchased and processed 650,000 tons of ore in those first five years.

But as early as 1957, just one year after the Edgemont mill was constructed, there were signs that the uranium boom would be short-lived.

Twenty-one uranium mills had sprung up throughout the West, including in Edgemont, as entrepreneurs scrambled to take advantage of guaranteed government prices. The nation was stockpiling material for its Cold War nuclear arsenal, and uranium was a basic ingredient.

Those 21 mills were annually producing an estimated 14,000 tons of yellowcake — the powdery end-product of uranium milling — by the end of 1958. That was enough to supply the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission with all the uranium it needed for 10 years, the agency reported.

radioactive tailings
Photo courtesy National Archives at Denver

A large pile of radioactive tailings sits on the far side of a pond near the Edgemont uranium mill in 1966. The mill was decommissioned in the mid-1980s.

With so much yellowcake streaming in, the Atomic Energy Commission in 1958 ended its guarantee to buy all the uranium produced in the United States, but said it would honor existing contracts through 1966.

J. Patrick Lannan, the wealthy financier and chairman of Susquehanna Corp., had made his fortune by knowing when to move in and out of companies and stocks. In 1962, with the uranium industry’s future on shaky ground, he was apparently plotting his profitable exit from Susquehanna.

In November that year, Lannan announced a shakeup in Susquehanna’s corporate leadership. Reports in the Chicago Tribune briefly mentioned that Allen Gray, the young former college instructor who’d brought the Edgemont mill deal to Lannan six years earlier, “resigned."

In 1965, an up-and-coming tycoon named Herbert Korholz offered to pay three key Susquehanna board members, including Lannan, $3.25 per share more than their stock was worth in exchange for their resignation from the board and their replacement by Korholz and his handpicked board members. The Susquehanna men took the deal.

In all, 430,000 shares changed hands at a total price of $6.45 million, which was about $1.45 million more than the shares were actually worth.

That and other moves by Korholz and Lannan enraged some of Susquehanna’s shareholders and incited years of infighting and litigation.

Meanwhile, “Lannan, the old manipulator, exited from Susquehanna laughing,” wrote James Boyd, author of a chapter on Korholz for the 1972 book “In the Name of Profit.”

stone marker
Chris Huber, Journal staff

A small stone marker sits in a field near the site of the Edgemont Uranium Mill Tailings Repository. The mill building, equipment used in the decommissioning project and 4 million tons of radioactive waste were buried at this site.

The PASCO Fiasco

According to Boyd, Korholz’s acquisition of Susquehanna was one of a dizzying array of ever-bigger deals he made following his release from a federal prison camp in 1960. He’d been sent there after unlawfully giving money to a Teamster chief during an earlier business venture.

After the Susquehanna deal, Korholz went on a merger-and-acquisition spree and shifted Susquehanna’s corporate headquarters from Chicago to Alexandria, Va. His formula: acquire companies with big losses; merge them into bigger companies that could use the losses to cut their tax liabilities; then repeat the cycle while extracting personal profits along the way.

Korholz’s upward spiral of deals eventually grew “clumsy by megalomania.” That was the description by Boyd, whose chapter on Korholz for “In the Name of Profit” climaxed with Korholz’s 1968 mergers of both Pan American Sulfur and American Smelting and Refining into Susquehanna — a $2 billion deal that was believed to be one of the largest corporate transactions in history.

It also turned out to be one of the worst deals of all time, immortalized as the “PASCO Fiasco” for the acronym of Pan American Sulfur Co.

By early 1971, 18 months after the deal, PASCO’s stock had plummeted by $60 million in value and was threatening to bankrupt its new parent, Susquehanna Corp., the once-great behemoth built largely on the construction of the Edgemont uranium mill. At the same time, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating Susquehanna for securities violations committed during the PASCO deal.

To raise cash and pay the PASCO debt, Korholz began selling off Susquehanna subsidiaries. One of those subsidiaries, Mines Development Inc., closed its Edgemont mill in 1972.

Timeline of Edgemont's
uranium industry

In 1974, Mines Development sold the mill and associated mineral rights for $6 million to the Tennessee Valley Authority, which needed uranium for its planned expansion of nuclear generating capacity.

In 1975, Susquehanna Corp. sold its subsidiary Susquehanna-Western, which had operated uranium mines near Edgemont, to Solution Engineering Inc. for $9.76 million. Both Susquehanna-Western and Mines Development were legally dissolved by 1978.

Edgemont residents were left to gaze at the vacant mill campus and the 50-foot-tall pile of sand-like radioactive mill tailings that sat beside it.

Susquehanna Corp., meanwhile, limped through numerous changes to its leadership and holdings and grew successful again by the 1980s. It was eventually absorbed by a French company that legally dissolved it in 1994.

None of those developments fazed J. Patrick Lannan, the Chicago tycoon who jumped into the uranium business by funding the Edgemont mill’s construction and then got out six years later. He died in 1983 and left a $100 million estate. Some of the money went to his foundation, which in 1986 began injecting $5 million annually into the contemporary art scene in Los Angeles.

That same year, more than 1,200 miles away from the glitz and glamour of L.A., and with none of Lannan’s money, a massive project was undertaken in Edgemont to bury the 4 million tons of radioactive waste produced by the mill Lannan financed back in 1956.

Mill waste
Chris Huber, Journal staff

Four million tons of radioactive uranium mill waste was buried here, southeast of Edgemont, after the mill was decommissioned. The white area is an impoundment designed to prevent the buried waste from washing away.

Environmental storm gathers

Even if Susquehanna Corp. had never fallen on hard times, another development might have doomed the Edgemont mill. That was the environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s and its accompanying concern for the effects of uranium mining and milling.

In late 1970, then-President Richard Nixon signed an executive order establishing the Environmental Protection Agency.

In 1971, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission ended its uranium-buying program. With the nuclear power industry still in its infancy, uranium ore millers who'd grown rich on government contracts were left with few outlets for their yellowcake.

In 1978, Congress passed and then-President Jimmy Carter signed the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act, which directed the U.S. Department of Energy to stabilize, dispose of and control uranium mill tailings and other contaminated material at uranium mill sites. Later that year, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered the Tennessee Valley Authority to plan the decommissioning of the long-dormant Edgemont uranium mill.

Then came the symbolic death knell for the uranium and nuclear-power industries: the March 28, 1979, partial meltdown at a nuclear reactor on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. It was the worst accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant history, and although Susquehanna Corp. shared its name with the Susquehanna River in which Three Mile Island is located, the corporation had no involvement in the disaster.

Clarence Anderson worked in the Edgemont mill for many years and managed its decommissioning for TVA in the mid-1980s. After the Three Mile Island disaster, he recalls, “the scare went out.”

“Nuclear is just something that scares the hell out of us now,” he said.

The great hope of a nuclear-powered future that sprang from the optimism of the 1950s was dead, and a big part of Edgemont died with it. The TVA, which had purchased the Edgemont mill and mining rights, never reopened the Edgemont plant or conducted any mining in the Edgemont area. Today, Edgemont has an estimated 742 residents, a roughly 60 percent decline from the uranium-fueled glory days of 1960.

radioactive tailings
Photo courtesy National Archives at Denver

Cottonwood Creek flows alongside tailings from the Edgemont uranium mill in 1966. The mill was situated near the confluence of the creek and the Cheyenne River. The creek's rust-colored appearance in this image is described in some historical government reports as being caused by pollution from the tailings piles.

A dam for radioactive waste

In 1978, the federal government ordered the TVA, a federally owned corporation, to plan for decommissioning of the dormant mill. It would be an enormous job.

Four million tons of yellowish, ultra-fine, sand-like radioactive “tailings” — a waste product of the milling process — were still on the ground beside the mill where they’d been piling up alongside Cottonwood Creek since 1956. The hulking pile was some 40 or 50 feet high.

The tailings were ignored for many years, but in the 1970s and 1980s, concern grew about their emission of radioactive, cancer-causing radon gas and the possible human ingestion of windblown tailings. A 1976 study by the South Dakota Department of Health found an increase in cancer deaths in Fall River County, which includes Edgemont, and also found cancer rates were higher in Fall River County than the rest of the state.

The decommissioning of the Edgemont mill commenced and finished during the 1980s. All of the mill buildings, equipment and sand tailings were hauled a couple of miles south of town where they were dumped in a sprawling, clay-compacted dry basin and covered with nine feet of fill, clay and soil.

Clarence Anderson, the Edgemont man who oversaw the decommissioning, said the basin resembled the Pactola Reservoir in the Black Hills, right down to the dam-like impoundment designed to prevent a leak of the radioactive material.

Around the same time, some Edgemont homes were condemned and others underwent excavations around their perimeters after it was determined that radioactive mill tailings were used as fill at 60 locations around town. Apparently, locals had skimmed the tailings off the mill’s huge pile and used them like fill dirt.

The federal government funded the effort to remove the tailings from around Edgemont. A U.S. General Accounting Office report to Congress said the effort cost $13.4 million in figures adjusted to 1995 dollars, which was the year the report was issued.

The TVA paid for the decommissioning and burying of all the Edgemont mill buildings, equipment and 4 million tons of radioactive waste. The Journal could find no accounting of the cost of that effort, and multiple inquiries to the TVA produced no response. Clarence Anderson, the Edgemont man who managed the decommissioning for TVA, said he recalls a cost of about $40 million.

Since then, a U.S. Department of Energy program created to reimburse uranium-processing licensees for massive cleanups had paid $15.41 million to the TVA by 2010, according to a report issued that year.

No costs associated with the cleanup were paid by Susquehanna Corp. or its subsidiary Mines Development, which operated the mill for 16 years, sold 6 million pounds of yellowcake to the federal government for an estimated $54 million, and produced every ounce of the 4 million tons of radioactive tailings that eventually had to be buried by others.

And the story doesn’t end there. The Edgemont area to this day is afflicted with abandoned open-pit mines, including at least one formerly owned by a Susquehanna subsidiary, which the Environmental Protection Agency is testing for potential pollution of local waterways. After all its profits, and after deciding to get out of Edgemont before the uranium market tanked, Susquehanna Corp. left the entire responsibility and cost for cleaning up to the federal government, and American taxpayers.

Next, Part 4: “Scars on the Land,” as the story leaps to the present, the EPA collides with Edgemont-area ranchers over attempts to study the environmental fallout of abandoned open-pit uranium mines.


Radioactive Legacy, Part 4: Scars on the land


Chris Huber, Journal staff

Massive piles of uranium mine waste sit at the site of the abandoned Darrow Mine northwest of Edgemont in this aerial photo from last summer. The site cannot be seen from any roadway. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was denied access to this old mine and others in the area by private landowners, but the agency gained access to other sites near the mines and tested for pollution. Results are pending.

 

EDGEMONT | The two officials from the EPA sat across from each other at a table in the Edgemont City Hall, and they waited.

They needed permission from local landowners, mostly ranchers, to go on their land to test waterways for pollution from abandoned uranium mines. A June open house was scheduled for the landowners, and for a while it looked like nobody would show up.

But then, in walked — nay, stomped — Don Anderson, his attire like a second skin: scuffed boots, a Western shirt stretched over his midsection and an angular cowboy hat atop his head. A bristly horseshoe mustache protruded from his face and a scowl tightened his jaw.

“I don’t want the government on my place,” he said. “I don’t trust the government.”

epa
Chris Huber, Journal staff

Environmental Protection Agency employees Dania Zinner, right, and Victor Ketellapper, middle, talk with Wayne Peterson in June about gaining access to his land near Edgemont for water testing. It turned out that the EPA did not need access to Peterson's land, but access was gained to various other sites where tests were conducted for potential pollution from abandoned uranium mines.

The EPA people absorbed the blow. They knew it was coming. They’d seen the likes of Anderson before and were prepared to win him over.

Gradually he melted under their assurances. They would only come once, they said, and would let him watch the work. He affixed his signature to their release form, and even became helpful, telling them the best way to access parts of his land.

In September, as the grass dried up on the plains at the southwestern edge of the Black Hills, an EPA contractor was on Anderson’s property testing a creek. Eleven other sites were also tested, involving seven landowners in all.

“They were gonna get on my land anyhow,” Anderson told a reporter after the June meeting. “It’s either this, or fight them in court, and you know how that would end up. I’d just as soon do it this way, with me watching them every step.”

The EPA wants to determine if a cleanup of the abandoned mines is needed to protect creeks and a river from potentially cancer-causing radioactive material left behind by uranium mining that ended in the 1970s. The ranchers are nervous that a cleanup will clean out their pockets, instead of forcing payment by the long-gone corporate barons who did the environmental damage.

The EPA is awaiting results from the testing and will only take action if pollutant levels downstream from the mines are at least three times higher than the “background,” or baseline levels measured upstream. The two big targets of the study — the Darrow and Triangle mines, which both include water-filled pits — were not tested because the owners of the sites did not grant access. Instead, samples were collected from the nearby Cheyenne River, Pass Creek and Beaver Creek.

radioactive tailings
Chris Huber, Journal staff

The Triangle Mine on Donald Spencer's land is filled with water to an estimated depth of 90 feet. The former uranium mine is one that the EPA was denied access to by Spencer when the agency wanted to do water testing. It's unknown if, or to what extent, the water in the pond is contaminated or polluting other nearby soil and waterways.

The testing was deemed necessary after a 2014 preliminary assessment that was requested by the nonprofit Institute of Range and the American Mustang, owner of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. The preliminary assessment found radioactive forms of elements, known as radionuclides, in surface soil, air, streams and domestic wells near the mines.

A lake in a mine

Donald Spencer, a weathered and wiry 79-year-old rancher, owns the land that includes the old Triangle Mine site. He worked in the mine as a young man, but it was operated by companies who had the mineral rights. Spencer and his relatives watched it all with bemused curiosity and kept on ranching.

In later years, Spencer acquired the land from his grandfather. He keeps the old mine fenced off and runs cattle around it.

The drive to the Triangle Mine is one best undertaken by a massive pickup like the one Spencer owns. One day in June, he bounced the truck over rocks and steered it around muddy ruts as he traversed the dirt track through a pasture of patchy grass, sage and sandstone rubble.

The track leads past the remains of a homestead cabin built with massive, interlocking, squared logs that are dried and bleached by the sun. Spencer’s grandfather homesteaded the area in “19-4,” his way of referring to 1904. That grandfather, according to Spencer, walked five miles to a railroad job each day and then came home to milk the cows at night. It was a hard life that was made a little easier with royalties from the uranium mines on his land.

At the mine site, a giant pile of waste rock is mounded into a kind of man-made badlands formation, dusty and tan and exposed to the harsh elements on the windblown plain. Over an adjacent mound and down in a depression, there it is: the remains of the Triangle Mine, a 400-yard long and 150-yard wide pit full of water that is about the size of 11 football fields.

It would be a nice little lake if it wasn’t 90 feet deep and possibly tainted by the radioactive remains of uranium ore.

epa
Chris Huber, Journal staff

This aerial photograph from July shows the abandoned Darrow Uranium Mine and its settlement pond northwest of Edgemont. The EPA tested nearby waterways in September for possible pollution from abandoned mines.

A deep, dark pool

One day not so many years ago, Spencer got a call from a pair of Rapid City men who wanted to go scuba diving in the pit. The request was the fulfillment of an odd prophecy that appeared in the Edgemont Herald-Tribune newspaper in 1961.

That year, journalist Charles E. Donnelly Jr. wrote in a column that the rights to the Triangle Mine had recently been acquired by the Mines Development company. That was perhaps an error, as it was more likely that the rights belonged to Susquehanna-Western. But the distinction meant little since both were subsidiaries of Susquehanna Corp., a giant holding company then headquartered in Chicago.

Donnelly had recently toured the pit and was awestruck by the “great man-made chasm,” which he described as “beautiful yet somewhat frightening and disquieting to enter.”

Workers were dynamiting and scraping up 500 tons of ore per day in the massive pit. Giant machines crept into the mine on a dirt road that slanted straight down into it. Trucks were loaded for back-and-forth trips to the mill in nearby Edgemont.

Keeping groundwater out of the mine was a constant challenge. When the mine’s corporate owners were finished with it, a foreman told Donnelly, they planned to simply let it fill, “creating a tremendous body of water.”

“It will be deep enough for good fishing,” Donnelly quoted the foreman as saying, and “boy what a place for scuba diving it will be.”

epa
Chris Huber, Journal staff

Environmental protection agency employees Dania Zinner, center, and Victor Kettellapper, left, talk with state Rep. Lance Russell, right, in June at Edgemont. The EPA employees were in town to seek permission from landowners to study potential environmental impacts from abandoned uranium mines.

Years later, the divers from Rapid City called Spencer and fulfilled the prophecy.

“They got about 15-20 feet down,” Spencer recalled, “and it was darker than the inside of a black cat.”

They left quickly and never came back. This past June, Dania Zinner, an Environmental Protection Agency employee who visited Edgemont, heard the scuba-diving tale from the Journal.

Her eyes grew wide at the telling.

“I’m not sure I’d want to go diving in that water,” she said.

Somebody else’s mess

The giant scars on the land are not the only vestige of the long-ago mining operations. Spencer said the flow of private water wells in the area diminished as mining prospectors drilled hundreds of deep holes in the earth, looking for uranium deposits.

To this day, while Spencer is out riding his pastures on horseback, he keeps a wary eye out for 4-inch-diameter holes that might trip and injure his horse.

“I knew all them guys that were diggin’ them holes, and I know how they were pluggin’ ’em,” Spencer said. “Let’s just say I probably better not talk about that.”

Darrow Mine
Chris Huber, Journal staff

The abandoned Darrow Mine was one of several open pit uranium mines in the area of Edgemont. This photo from July shows mine waste piles alongside an open pit where water has collected.

Yet Spencer is cold to the federal EPA, whose employees say they want to help him clean up the old mine if necessary. When they showed up in June to meet with Spencer and other landowners in Edgemont to seek access to their land for environmental testing, Spencer strolled into Edgemont City Hall and sat down as the EPA representatives talked to someone else. After sitting silently and listening for a few moments, he whispered something about “B.S.” and needing lunch, and then walked out.

Spencer’s suspicion of outsiders and bureaucrats is borne of hard-fought experience. He watched uranium men swoop in with big promises in the 1950s and then flee in the 1970s with most of the profits and none of the responsibility for the abandoned mines, drill holes or the defunct Edgemont mill and its 4 million tons of radioactive waste tailings.

Spencer has also butted heads with the U.S. Forest Service, which owns land next to his and has been a consistent source of aggravation, he said, because of runaway controlled burns, wildfires, downed trees on his pasture fences and other everyday troubles.

The bureaucrats and the corporate-mining types who’ve come and gone through the decades have viewed Spencer and his ilk as “pretty backwoodsy,” he said.

But in refusing to deal with the EPA on his mine site, he may be wise. If the testing shows a need for a cleanup to protect area waterways, said the EPA’s Victor Ketellapper, the other agency representative who made the June trek to Edgemont, a landowner could be one of the “potentially liable parties.”

Ketellapper stressed that the EPA prefers to find the companies that caused the environmental damage and then assess the cleanup cost to them; failing that, the agency tries to make accommodations for landowners who lack an ability to pay.

When Spencer looks around, he doesn’t see any companies that the EPA could hold liable. Susquehanna Corp., the giant holding company that controlled much of the mining and milling in the Edgemont area via two subsidiaries, was legally dissolved decades ago.

That leaves Spencer alone and potentially exposed and stubbornly against further intrusions.

“We met with ’em last fall,” he said of an earlier EPA visit. “I more or less told ’em we didn’t want ’em around here.”

Next, Part 5 and final: “The past as prologue,” on whether the lessons of Edgemont’s open-pit uranium boom will be applied to a proposed new round of uranium mining.


Radioactive Legacy, Part 5: The Past as Prologue


Chris Huber, Journal staff

Mark Hollenbeck, manager of the Dewey-Burdock project, said the current proposed uranium project near Edgemont is in "regulatory purgatory," but he said the in situ uranium mining process is safer for the environment and human health than the open-pit and tunneling methods used in decades past.

 

Experience has taught Donald Spencer to be skeptical about a proposal to mine more uranium in the Edgemont area.

The straight-talking 79-year-old rancher has signed a financial agreement to allow mining on his land, but he hesitated when asked if he’s supportive of the project.

“I don’t know whether I am or not,” he said. “The more I hear about it, maybe the less I am.”

Spencer lived through the first uranium boom during the 1950s and ’60s. He said exploratory drilling during that era diminished the production of his family’s water well and left behind uncapped 4-inch-diameter holes that have tripped and injured horses on his ranch along the southwestern edge of the Black Hills.

Mining companies also left behind unreclaimed mines — including one on land that Spencer now owns — and a 4 million ton pile of radioactive waste that was later buried in a pit south of Edgemont. The waste, a sand-like substance known as “tailings,” was used as fill material at dozens of sites around town, where it emitted cancer-causing radon gas and had to be dug up. Some Edgemont residents, along with former millworkers and miners, suffered lung diseases and various cancers that may have been caused by inhaling metallic, radioactive dust and radioactive gas.

Lilias Jarding
Chris Huber, Journal staff

Lilias Jarding, a member of the Black Hills Clean Water Alliance, opposes the Dewey-Burdock uranium mining project. She fears that drinking water may be contaminated if the project is allowed to happen and an accident occurs.

The question begged by that sad history is whether Azarga Uranium Corporation will repeat the sins of the past — mostly committed by the now defunct Susquehanna Corporation — if Azarga’s project wins regulatory approval. Here’s a look at some of those past sins, with analysis by experts on both sides of the debate about renewed mining.

Method is different

Unlike the old days, when mining companies tunneled, dug and blasted their way to underground ore deposits and then crushed and leached out the uranium in above-ground mills, the new proposal involves injecting a solution of water, oxygen and carbon dioxide to leach the uranium from the ore while it’s still deep underground, and then pumping it to the surface. It’s a method of mining called “in situ,” which is a Latin phrase meaning “in its original place.”

Mark Hollenbeck is a local rancher, engineer, former legislator and former Edgemont mayor who can recall some of the first mining era from his childhood. He now works for Azarga (previously for Powertech) as its manager for the Dewey-Burdock project, named for two Edgemont-area map dots in the proposed mining area. Hollenbeck said the in situ method is one of many ways the new mining effort will be different from the old one.

He’s infuriated by what he called the “regulatory purgatory” that has so far taken eight years and has not yet resulted in permission to mine. The Azarga proposal, he said, is being punished for the long-ago sins of others.

Donald Spencer
Chris Huber, Journal staff

Rural Edgemont rancher Donald Spencer leased mining rights to Azarga and said his agreement includes the requirement that the company drill him a new well if his existing well is negatively affected.

“It’s like saying we shouldn’t allow anybody to sell new cars because in the ’50s they didn’t have seat belts,” Hollenbeck said. “Well, we learned and we evolved and we changed and got better regulations with better technologies. To compare us to the mining operations of the ’50s is ludicrous.”

Lilias Jarding, a member of the Black Hills Clean Water Alliance, which opposes the proposed mining project, disagrees. She has a doctorate in political science with an emphasis on environmental policy and frequently writes and speaks about in situ mining.

“From history, there is nothing that leads me to believe the uranium industry has changed,” Jarding said, “and nothing that leads me to believe we would end up with a different outcome this time.”

An existing in situ uranium mine is now operating near Crawford, Neb., not far from Edgemont, and its owners are seeking a new permit to continue the mining. Government data on the mine, which has 5,400 wells in operation, show more than 50 violations of the mine's operating permit from 1997 to 2012, though no major disasters or contamination of ground water have been reported.

Where the wealth goes

Most of the wealth produced during the first mining era did not stay in Edgemont or South Dakota. Men like J. Patrick Lannan, whose Chicago-based Susquehanna Corp. and its subsidiaries owned the Edgemont mill and some of the mines, made millions and invested little to none of it in Edgemont, which has shriveled to half of its mining-era population.

Hollenbeck acknowledged that the major wealth from a new uranium boom will probably follow a similar path out of the city and state. Azarga has its international headquarters in Hong Kong.

“The real wealth tends to follow risk,” Hollenbeck said, “so whoever takes the risk tends to get the wealth.”

In this case, as Hollenbeck sees it, the risk is a regulatory process that he said has taken eight years so far and cost the company $100 million.

At least some of the profits would stay to be reinvested in local communities through severance taxes. The tax rate is 4.5 percent of the gross value of the uranium produced by the mines, and the revenue is split between the state and counties.

Edgemont
Chris Huber, Journal staff

Azarga's proposal for an 11,000-acre in situ uranium mine lies roughly 15 miles north of Edgemont on land that is currently used by ranchers.

If the projected 10 million pounds of uranium is mined and the price is $40 per pound (that was the approximate price around the time of this writing), the mines would produce $400 million in revenue for Azarga and the severance tax would peel off $9 million for the state and another $9 million to be split between Custer and Fall River counties. Those are cumulative figures over the anticipated 12-year proposed life span of the mines.

Fewer than a dozen landowners would also receive mineral-rights payments and production royalties from Azarga, the terms of which Hollenbeck declined to disclose.

Environmental concerns

The environmental impact of the first mining era is its most obvious and dubious legacy. At least two large open-pit mines remain unreclaimed north of Edgemont, and there’s a massive containment site south of Edgemont where 4 million tons of radioactive tailings — the byproduct of uranium milling — were buried.

The impact of the water-filled, open-pit mines on the surrounding environment is largely unknown but was the subject of September testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Results are pending and could be released this year.

Hollenbeck said Azarga will be required to post millions of dollars worth of bonds, which are yet to be calculated, if it wins regulatory approval. The bonds would serve as financial protection for taxpayers and landowners if the company is unable to reclaim the mined areas.

He said the environmental risk from in situ mining is less than traditional mining, if all goes as planned. The above-ground surface is disturbed only by pumps, and the water in the solution that is injected underground is taken from local underground sources. At the end of mining, the water is treated to meet federal standards and pumped back below ground.

Jarding fears regulators might loosen the water standards over time to favor Azarga. She also suspects that the environmental impacts that were so obvious during the first mining era will simply persist in a less obvious, underground location.

“I have a real concern about the out-of-sight, out-of-mind factor,” Jarding said.


This video, produced by Azarga Uranium, explains the in situ mining process

Health risks

Compared to the old mining era, when miners labored in tunnels and open pits and were exposed to potentially lung-damaging metallic dust and radioactive waste, and millers operated huge crushers and chemical leaching tanks, the in situ mining method includes very little above-ground work.

Modern miners will operate pumps and some chemical tanks, but little else will occur above ground as the leaching is accomplished underground by the injected, water-based solution.

After the uranium is extracted from the solution, it will go to a processing facility to be converted into dry uranium known as yellowcake. That facility might be built on-site; otherwise, trucks would haul the unprocessed material to a plant somewhere off-site.

Jarding thinks the minimal amount of above-ground activity might bring a false sense of security to locals whose groundwater could be tainted by the injection and pumping process. If something goes wrong, she said, uranium or radium could enter the water and sicken people and livestock.

“Underground excursions when the mining fluid goes out of the mining area are typical,” she said, referring to uranium mining in general.

Impact on wells

Even supporters of mining acknowledge that ranchers in the Edgemont area suffered diminished production by their private water wells during the first mining era.

Jarding said it was partly a product of exploratory drill holes.

“You can be punching so many holes and pumping so much water that you take away artesian pressure,” she said.

Additionally, some of the old tunnel and pit mines required constant pumping to keep groundwater out, and that may also have affected pressure.

Hollenbeck, whose own family’s well was affected during his childhood, said another culprit may have been ranchers themselves. Many had wells drilled during the first mining era and some may have overused them, he said.

Hollenbeck said Azarga benefits from better data on the existing condition of wells and is better prepared to deal with the situation. He said Azarga has agreements with the local counties to replace negatively impacted wells, and he said the bonds required to be posted by state and federal regulatory agencies will include money for well impacts. Those bonds are yet to be calculated and depend on factors such as the fluctuating price of uranium, but Hollenbeck said the bonds will be “in the millions.”

In situ leach mining
Lee Enterprises Graphic

In situ leach mining and how it works

Spencer, who has leased mining rights to Azarga, said his agreement with the company includes a requirement that the company drill him a new well if his is harmed.

That was the main reason Spencer consented to the agreement. Had he not leased rights to the company, he knew the minefields would be near enough to his property that any negative impacts probably would affect him anyway.

“So I decided it was better to take their lease money because, like I said, if they hurt the water, they were going to hurt it whether they leased my ground or not,” Spencer said.

Hollenbeck said drill holes will be better plugged this time as a result of stricter standards. During the first mining era, hole-plugging was haphazard and without oversight.

Spencer looks on all such promises skeptically. When asked if he thought the first mining era was good for Edgemont, he uttered a characteristically blunt assessment that could turn out to be just as applicable to the future.

“That depends,” Spencer said, “on if you was gettin’ a check out of it.”


Project Credits



Seth Tupper

Seth, who reported and wrote the project, is an enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal. He grew up in Wessington Springs and Kimball, got his journalism degree from South Dakota State University, and spent 12 years at The Daily Republic in Mitchell before moving to Rapid City, where he lives with his wife and two children.



Bart Pfankuch

Bart Pfankuch, editor on the project, is a 25-year veteran of journalism who has been executive editor of the Journal since 2012. He lives in north Rapid City with his wife and three dogs, a cat, a guinea pig and a talking parrot.



Chris Huber

Chris, the photographer for the project, is the assistant managing editor for the Rapid City Journal and grew up in Black Hills. He enjoys the wide variety of outdoor activities the Black Hills have to offer and lives in Rapid City with his fiancé and his dog Stella.

 

Page design and presentation by Kody Sharp