PIERRE, S.D. - A South Dakota group says old uranium mines across the state and U.S. are contaminating water and the air with radioactive chemicals. The group, Defenders of the Black Hills, is helping to lead an effort to educate people and clean up old uranium mines across the country with an Earth Day event Tuesday.
The event is part of a "Clean Up The Mines" project launched on Earth Day.
The state event will take place on the Highway 40 Cheyenne River Bridge near Hermosa. Charmaine White Face, founder and coordinator for Defenders of the Black Hills, said the river, among others, contains runoff from abandoned uranium mines in South Dakota and Wyoming. Most of the 10,000 abandoned uranium mines are in the western U.S., including more than 250 in South Dakota.
This Sunday photo provided by Clean Up The Mines shows Dr. Margaret Flowers, left, and Helen Jaccard demonstrating for the national Clean Up The Mines effort at the Mouth Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, S.D. The state has over 250 abandoned uranium mines. The South Dakota group Defenders of the Black Hills is working with Clean Up The Mines to educate people about the number of mines and possible health risks of uranium exposure through water and air.
White Face, a former science teacher, said the issue came to her attention more than 10 years ago, but she didn't understand the extent of it.
"We've been hollering about this to the state and anybody that would listen," White Face said. "The state could do quite a bit if they would."
She said some of the mines in question are on private land and some on federal land, including a large percentage around Mount Rushmore.
"All those 2 million visitors (a year) to Mount Rushmore, they're breathing in radioactive dust and they don't even know it," White Face said.
Mike Cepak, an engineering manager with the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said the state doesn't have an abandoned mine program. He said the U.S. Forest Service has reclaimed some mines in the western part of the state, but the process is expensive. It involves rearranging drainage so water doesn't pass through the mine, filling it in and returning vegetation to the area.
"It's mainly a funding problem," Cepak said.
He said there hasn't been much uranium mining in the state for the past 40 years.
"All the rivers in western South Dakota contain uranium. It's pretty much, by-and-large natural," he said, adding that the uranium levels are low.
Cepak couldn't comment on the potential health risks of uranium exposure, but White Face attributes it to cases of cancer and brain tumors in the Northern Plains.
She's concerned that people don't realize the number of old mines in the state and their potential effects. White Face has given speeches on the East Coast to drum up support for federal legislation that her group is collaborating on.
Defenders of the Black Hills is working with a U.S. congressman to draft legislation mandating mine reclamation. White Face said they're on the fourth draft. She hopes it will be complete in a few weeks and sent to Washington, D.C., to be reviewed then presented as a bill for lawmakers' consideration.