Surface Mining in the Black Hills
The Black Hills serve a great variety of values and needs. They are home to thousands, retreat and sanctuary for many recreation and amusement for millions, and a source of income and fortune for residents. They are home to one of the nation’s most impressive national monuments. Their parks, lakes, caves, and streams are equal to the finest the nation offers anywhere.
Mining has always been one of several significant land uses in the Black Hills. Now, however, it appears that the old balance of uses is being seriously threatened by inadequate mining laws and new mining technologies. Specifically, the prospect of vast new open cut mining and heap leach milling practices threaten to dominate and destroy the balance of uses presently existing. Under present mining laws South Dakota has lost control of mining in the Hills, and almost all other uses and values are under threat of pillage and devastation.
SDRC is not opposed in principle to mining although as all mining is by nature a non-renewable economic activity, it must be controlled and limited by wise choices for the ultimate benefit of society as well as for the mining industry. However, surface mining is essentially hostile to all other land uses (in contrast to deep rock mining). Consequently, surface mining is a fundamentally inappropriate activity within highly sensitive, valuable, and multi-use land areas, and SDRC is opposed to its introduction, continuance, or encouragement in such areas as the Black Hills.
SDRC is furthermore deeply concerned about the enormous potential for environmental degradation represented by the proliferation of heap leach cyanide pads. Even if heap leaching processes can safely take place on given sites, they present great risks to the environment if their containment should be breached by natural catastrophes, human error, or deterioration of materials. Their continued existence long after mining has terminated represents both an environmental and an aesthetic liability.
However, surface mining permits have already have been granted and more are expected. The difficult reality is that such mining will probably be allowed and perhaps even encouraged for foreseeable future. In response to such reality, SDRC advocates legislative action to minimize the damage of surface mining as follows:
I. Granting of Permits
- No permit for large scale mining should be granted without an environmental impact statement and a socio-economic impact statement approved by the Board of Minerals and Environment and funded by the applicant. The board shall not approve the permit until at least 60 days after such statements have been made available for public scrutiny. Not less than 60 days before the permit is acted upon, at least one copy of the statements should be placed in the county of the proposed operation in a place accessible to the public during regular office hours.
- Aesthetics (questions of beauty) must be reinstated as a category of value and used by the board when considering a mining permit application. Aesthetics is probably the single most significant value shared by the citizens of the state as a whole. Mining of extraordinarily beautiful and irreplaceable sites should be prohibited by declaring areas of significant aesthetic value unsuitable for mining in 45-6B-33. Spearfish Canyon is one such area.
- The board should be required by statute to limit the total impacted area of all surface mining operations in the Hills to not more than 1000 acres at any given time. New permits should be granted only when the new operation will not cause the total of unreclaimed land to be in excess of 1000 acres.
If surface mining is to be allowed, the following reclamation procedures must be adopted:
- The board must have final authority in determining the types, extent, and timing of reclamation procedures.
- The loophole in present law which allows companies to claim future mining as a legitimate reclamation plan must be closed. This may best be accomplished by deleting “future industrial use” from 45-6B-44.
- Present law requires revegetation on all affected lands. However, an exception exists in cases where heap leach piles of tailings prove too toxic for vegetative growth. This exception should be deleted. A finding by the board that revegetation is unlikely should constitute grounds for denial of the permit under 45-^B-33-(1).
- SDRC urges deletion of the life-of-the-mine permit and institution of triennial application to the board for permit renewal (with appropriate free). Under a life-of –the-mine permit truck load of ore each year may constitute “production”, and reclamation can be put off indefinitely since reclamation does not begin until mining has officially terminated. No reclamation plan, however enlightened, can function for the benefit of society unless it is actually consummated.
In order for state agencies to better protect the public interest and environmental safety relative to mining activities, SDRC proposes that:
- The state require that oversight of major construction, sampling, and monitoring operations be carried out by Department of Water and Natural Resources personnel.
- Violators of permit conditions should be subject to a criminal penalty and civil penalties should be increased.
- The State should adopt a realistic precious minerals severance tax in the recognition that such minerals are a non-renewable resource. SDRC regards the tax adopted during the Janklow administration a reasonable tax.
- All mining permit fees should be set high enough to cover the costs of permitting, monitoring, and enforcement activities of the state agencies involved. At present, costs to the state to administer mining permits for gold in the Black Hills vastly overrun fees paid by the permitted. Consequently, public funds must subsidize administrative costs. This means that the state’s modest severance taxes are being diminished by subsidies tot he mining industry thus reducing the value of such taxes to the people of South Dakota.
- C. The State should not permit a mining operator to offer land as a surety for reclamation. All sureties should be in cash or government securities.
- D. All reclamation bonds for mining permits should represent real and actual costs of reclamation. Bonds should be reviewed triennially and be increased to keep pace with inflation in reclamation costs.