Uranium concerns taint beauty of Cave Hills

By Lauren Donovan
Cave Hills, South Dakota (AP) May 2011

Tom Kalisiak and everyone in his family have had their gallbladders removed.

It could be a coincidence that they all grew up downwind and downstream from abandoned uranium mines in the beautiful Cave Hills and became ill.

He doesn’t think so. He doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that the cattle he grazes out there die from immune system illnesses, like pneumonia, that shouldn’t kill them.

He supplements copper – “By the vet’s standards it’s enough to kill them” – but the level in the animals’ blood work only registers normal. The heavy metals from the uranium pits “tie up” copper, as well as zinc, in the animals, both elements critical to immune systems.

So far, he should count his blessings. A friend and neighbor, Randy Feist, is living without a kidney from cancer linked to uranium and arsenic exposure.

Feist was attending his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation ceremony at Buffalo, so he couldn’t go to a meeting where the topic of the uranium mines and a federal cleanup project was discussed.

Cave Hills are part of the Custer National Forest managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

The hills are a vast sandstone outcropping that rises up from the prairie, dark with pine and, for those who know where to look, keeper of secret cliff drawings made by Plains Indian men in long-ago hunting camps.

It has taken years to get to this point, but the 12 separate bluffs that were mined to supply uranium for the Atomic Energy Commission during the Cold War-era of the `60s are gradually being covered over and seeded with grass.

The reclamation will hopefully be like tough skin over an old sore that oozed, in this case enough radium and arsenic to qualify the pits as toxic waste sites.

Portage Environmental reported the company’s findings on soil tests from around the mines compared to tests right at the mines, when the cleanup was still in the environmental review stage.

Those tests were evaluated against estimated exposure over 70 years.

The bottom line is that in the worst-case scenario, the ranchers have 1-in-25 odds of getting cancer from heavy metals, primarily arsenic. Ranchers have 1-in-250 odds of getting cancer from uranium and its byproducts, such as thorium, which is related to several cancers, including kidney cancer, like Feist’s.

Hunters or tribal members, who visit for sacred purposes, have a slight risk.

Signs posted at the old mines caution visitors that one day there exceeds the recommended annual exposure to uranium radiation. “No camping,” the signs read.

Some, but not all, of the runoff and streams in the Cave Hills are filtered through sediment ponds. The old pits erode, spreading the toxins down the hillsides.

For Kalisiak, “It’s too little, too late, but at least they’re going forward. They’re getting something done.”

Feist recently said he’d like to see relief for the local ranchers. “The heavy metals have drifted on us and contaminated our water and soil. Our animal health is not up to par,” he said. Besides private ground, he and three other ranchers share grazing permits for 6,000 acres of Forest Service land in the Cave Hills.

He isn’t looking for a hand out, but for a cleanup on private land, too. “Right now, the focus is on stopping it,” he said.

The Forest Service’s meeting was held in a school gym at nearby Ludlow, S.D., a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it hamlet split by Highway 85.

The gym was chilly on this spring night and the metal folding chairs chillier still. Forest Service employees outnumbered ranchers – 10 of them to the three locals who showed up.

This was different from several years ago. Then, ranchers packed meeting rooms to talk about their fears and listen to health and cleanup updates.

Now, the fight has moved on to the courtroom and boardroom, where the Forest Service is trying to get money from Tronox LLC, a spinoff of Kerr-McGee, the company that mined most of the uranium in Cave Hills in the late `50s and `60s.

Tronox went through bankruptcy and the Forest Service was awarded $7 million in a bankruptcy settlement a few months ago.

Mary Beth Marks, Forest Service coordinator of the uranium reclamation to date, said it’ll cost about $63 million to do the job right.

Meantime, Tronox is in court with Anadarko Petroleum, which purchased Kerr-McGee, claiming Anadarko fraudulently promised enough assets to cover the uranium cleanup.

Tronox was involved in the cleanup for a brief time and then walked off the project prior to the bankruptcy, Marks said.

It hasn’t been easy for the ranchers to live with the danger, but it hasn’t been easy for the Forest Service to get cleanup money from the responsible parties. After Tronox walked off, the agency hired its own contractor and continued the work.

Marks said it’s slow, but steady progress.

“We’ve done pretty well at moving things along. I think the public is supportive that we’re finally moving dirt,” she said.

Two of the 12 pit bluffs were covered over last year. One of them had the highest or “hottest” gamma ray reading of all the exposed pits and still showed some hot spots after being covered over. More soil was layered up, she said.

Another pit will be reclaimed this summer.

“We can do a lot with $7 million,” Marks said.

The sediment ponds that catch some of the erosion from the pits have been a particular challenge, she said.

They’ve been dredged three times over the years and the slimy muck from the bottom has been trucked back up to the old uranium pits, where it and other clay soils runs back down to the ponds.

The cycle won’t stop until all the pits are sealed up and reclaimed.

The work could take another 10 to 15 years, she said. That is faster than the half-life of radioactive material. On the other hand, it’s already been leaching into soils and water for more than half a century.

“They should have started this 45 years ago,” Kalisiak said.

In all, the pits encompass 250 acres in the Cave Hills, scattered around the reddish stone outcroppings. The pits look like scars of gray rubble on the high sides and tops of the bluffs.

One pit – bluff “B” – is the granddaddy of all the uranium mine pits, covering 150 acres.

“That’s the big problem. That’s where all the runoff is,” Marks said. Sediment is being trucked down into ponds to prevent runaway contamination and it’ll be a priority once the financial settlement is clarified, hopefully by 2012.

Ray Anderson, a tall gray-haired rancher and Harding (S.D.) County Commissioner, drove up from Buffalo for the meeting.

“I sure want them to get that cleaned up. I’m just thankful that something’s being done,” he said.