Oglala Lakota College Challenges Safety of Uranium Mining in Black Hills

Testimony by Dr. Hannan LaGarry spotlights the vital role of research in tribal colleges

Dr. Hannan LaGarry. Photo Credit: Scott Morgan

A controversial plan to reopen uranium mining in the southern Black Hills was dealt a blow earlier this year when research conducted by Oglala Lakota College faculty member Hannan LaGarry found that operations by Azarga Uranium Corp. risk serious contamination to the region’s water supply.

“In my expert opinion, artesian flow demonstrates a lack of containment at the site and poses a significant risk of unexpected, serious contamination of the Cheyenne River and its tributaries, faults and sinkholes,” said LaGarry, who is co-chair of the college’s Math, Science and Technology Department and a geologist by training.

These findings were based on research conducted by LaGarry and a team of Oglala Lakota College students. Azarga Uranium Corp. sought to keep these research findings from the public. However, The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board ruled that the damaging testimony be made public.

A widely reprinted news story about LaGarry’s testimony and subsequent events can be found here.

As this story continues to unfold,  Native Science Report Editor Paul Boyer asked LaGarry to talk more about the important role Oglala Lakota College plays in community-based research and also about the role Oglala Lakota College students played in this particular investigation.

Boyer: Tell me about the role of Oglala Lakota College in the debate over uranium mining near the Pine Ridge Reservation. Would the tribe have the capacity to pursue this kind of research without the presence of the college?

LaGarry: Without Oglala Lakota College’s Department of Math, Science, and Technology, the tribe would not have the capacity to do this type of research. There are several reasons for this.

First, tribal agencies, such as the OST Environmental Protection Program, the OST Natural Resources Regulation Agency, the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority, and the Tribal Historical Protection Office are regulatory, permitting, and monitoring bodies only, and do not have the funding, resources, personnel, collaborations, and expertise for these activities.

Additionally, I’m the only faculty with the training and background to directly confront this issue.  Other faculty participate in TCUP, PEEC, and EPSCoR (the main funders of the research), but I was recruited to OLC (by then-VP for Instruction Gerry Giraud) based entirely on my long history of local expertise–I’m one of a handful of geologists that specialize in the stratigraphy of the northern Great Plains.

OLC’s role is vital. The other academic/research geologists around work for the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology are all pro-industry and pro-mining and would not be involved on the tribe’s behalf.  Since I’m not a mining geologist (no industry leanings whatsoever) and personally study stratigraphy and vertebrate fossils, I’m insulated professionally from any backlash from the mining industry.  I’m also politically insulated by virtue of working for the tribe.  I’m financially insulated by virtue of being funded by NSF and USDA.

Boyer: I understand that some Oglala Lakota College students were involved in the research process.

LaGarry: Three students (Patrisse Vasek, Camille Griffith, and Jake Ferguson) helped go through thousands of paper records and compile data.  We met a week prior for training, and I narrowed the data we were looking for so as to be most efficient with their help.

This was not part of a class, but a labor of love on their parts. Our attorneys had gotten us some funding, so I could give them a stipend and cover their expenses. The stipend was to make up for the NSF TCUP and PEEC-funded Research Assistantship hours they sacrificed to work on this project instead.

We braved freezing temperatures and a snowy blizzard to spend three days in Hot Springs/Edgemont. We drove to the mine’s offices, and worked for about sixteen hours compiling data. I then wrote the testimony. Its no secret around here that I couldn’t have done it without them. The volume of data we sifted through gave us the impact we needed.

Boyer: What is  happening now around the uranium mining issue? Get us up to date.

LaGarry: The Dewey-Burdock hearing (discussed in the newspaper story) will be decided by April 30th 2015, so we don’t know the outcome.  This mine is proposed, and hasn’t actually started yet, and a ruling in our favor would prevent it from starting.

Currently, there is another, similar proceeding involving the established Crow Butte Resources ISL [in-situ leach] uranium mine in Crawford, Nebraska. This mine is located upstream from the reservation along the White River. In November I provided an opinion on that, and the initial results are in (documents are attached below). The hearing for this one will be this coming 24-26 August 2015.  There will then be some additional back and forth, and this one may be decided as early as early 2016.

Boyer: What are some other emerging environmental policy issues that Oglala Lakota College or other tribal colleges should address?

LaGarry: Water, water, water, water.  It’s all about water. Research has shown that we’re about 30 years into a 140-year cycle of drought that will get much worse before it gets any better.  This is the overarching issue for Western and Plains tribes.

Other issues, such as climate change, food sovereignty, animal and plant resources, sustainable housing, and energy independence all come back to the availability and amount of potable water. This is true for everyone, but especially developing nations like ours (the Oglala Lakota Nation).

Additional documents related to LaGarry’s testimony: Crow Butte decision March 2015  LAGARRY UPDATED CBR OPINION 2015