Exploratory drilling projects are being permitted despite overwhelming opposition

Newark Exploratory Drilling Project Decision Memo Map April 2024. (Map provided by Forest Service)

CUSTER – As the Forest Service put a hold on the Ponderosa proposed gold exploration drilling project in the northern Black Hills, another has been given permission. Last week, the Black Hills National Forest Service gave permission for F3 Gold LLC’s Newark mineral exploration project west of Custer to move ahead, despite that it’s in the City of Custer’s watershed. The BHNFS has also issued a “categorical exclusion”, which means that they do not plan to do any further environmental review of the project. It may be in the municipal watershed, but the Forest Service says it is not a problem and has denied that there will be impacts to water.

The Forest Service has limited authority. It can set restrictions to protect resources and minimize damage but can’t approve or deny projects. The Mining Law of 1872 also mandates that the Forest service encourage and facilitate mining concerns.

The Decision Memo for Newark assures that this is just exploratory and there will be no proposed mineral extraction. There were delays but now the project been amended to minimize resource impacts and public impacts – shorter duration, fewer drill pads and laydown pads, less overland travel routes and less overall surface disturbance. It also said but the BHNFS said that it isn’t over any of the area’s major aquifers – Deadwood, Madison, Minnelusa, Minnekahta, and Inyan Kara.

Custer residents and neighbors of the project aren’t convinced. Hundreds wrote letters in opposition to the project when it was originally proposed expressing concerns about its impact to water quality. Rick Nehls, who lives two minutes from the project, said the Forest Service can’t guarantee safe drilling no matter what they do. “One of my concerns is that when they drill these exploratory wells, they could possibly hit uranium and that hole could open up and let radon into the water and if that happens the whole area from upper French Creek all the way to Pine Ridge will be contaminated and uncleanable.”

Killian Krause said of great concern was the lack of an environmental study. Krause said the noise and land disturbance will impact the Elk refuge that is located at the Upper French Creek Road. Krause cited lack of any long-term planning. “The entire proposal seems vague and deceptive and without respect for the people who have invested in this area.”

Watersheds are everywhere. The United States Geological Survey USGS) explains that a watershed is an area of land that drains all the streams and rainfall into a common outlet such as the outflow of a reservoir, mouth of a bay, or any point along a stream channel.

French Creek is a tributary of the Cheyenne River, which flows year-round. In drier periods it flows into an underground drainage near the eastern boundary of Custer State Park and never reaches the Cheyenne. When it’s flowing, it extends for 62 miles and empties in the Cheyenne River near Red Shirt west of the Badlands National Park.

F3 Gold sells itself as an exploration and prospecting company, not a mining company. Their exploration activities are minor. Self-described as a group of young and passionate geologists with a strong sense of environmental stewardship and social responsibility.

But Taylor Gunhammer from NDN Collective said that is just optics. “Part of what is being called the just transition away from fossil fuels is investing in different energy technologies like wind and solar, which use these minerals for their materials. The push globally has been to mine more and more of these minerals. The biggest problem with that is that the deposits and minerals are often found on Indigenous lands. Seventy-nine percent of lithium and nickel and cobalt known deposits are within 35 miles of an Indian reservation. It’s happening here but it is also a global problem. In the pursuit of cleaner energy unfortunately Indigenous peoples are being asked to bear the burden of the worlds technological progress. Again. It’s not even the first time we’ve done it.”

Gunhammer said there is now a concerted effort to do it all over again which he says has been “greenwashed” to make people feel better about extracting from Indigenous lands. “I am of the opinion that we should have been investing for the last 50 years in recycling and recovery of these minerals and recovering them from landfills in particular. Instead of extracting more and faster and deeper.”

Greenwashing, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), is the act of making false or misleading statements about the environmental benefits of a product or practice. Companies use this technique to continue their practices of polluting. They game the system and profit off consumers who believe it’s better for the environment. Green sheen as it’s also called, is a type of deceptive advertising or marketing spin that is designed to convince the public that the organization’s products, goals or policies are environmentally friendly.

“They always say that exploration is not mining, just out of intellectual curiosity, they say they want to know where these minerals are,” said Gunhammer, referencing both the Ponderosa project and Newark project, both exploratory projects. “People know that is a complete lie. We know that exploration is the first step of opening a mine and frankly we are very tired of both the Forest Service and the mining companies pushing that narrative on us.”

Gunhammer said when the Forest Service attempted to force through the Newark project. “People got wind of this, and the Forest Service expected there to be five or six people in a quiet meeting where they shoo away some old people. Over 300 people showed up – residents of Custer, Rapid City and other communities, Native and non-Native – they showed up and screamed down the Forest Service to stop the Newark Project.” Since then, the Forest Service has hired a new acting district ranger and “are attempting to force through the same project through the categorical exclusion.”

Lilias Jarding from the Black Hills Clean Water Alliance in a letter to the Forest Service opposing the Newark project when it was proposed last year said, even with the company’s calculations, the project would still require nearly 5 acres and over a new mile of road, which would require brush to be cleared and potentially earth moving. A dozer would be used. “That this will disturb only 1.5 acres strains credibility,” wrote Jarding. “It will disturb not only the actual surface of the road, but also wildlife, water flow, air quality, campers, and other outdoor recreators in the general area.” She also said there are wetlands that need to be considered “and at least one spring in the proposed project area, as well as French Creek.” Jarding said French Creek runs through Custer, is used by the city and then flows into Custer State Park. The scenic river draws bicyclists, hikers and tourists. Any contamination would impact recreation and the area’s economy. Jarding said without further study, it isn’t possible to say what is and isn’t threatened. “One type of habitat that is of concern is the montane grasslands, which are limited to the Blak Hills and are present in the general area.”

This project will use a lot of water. Water will be used for the exploration drill coring. F3 estimates average water usage will be in the range of 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of water per day per drill rig.

American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) Thriving Earth Exchange says that the renewed interest in mining puts more than 100,000 people at risk in the Black Hills because of the potential to release toxic metal into nearby drinking water sources. They estimate that the exploratory project and proposed mining field combined are larger than the currently open-pit cyanide heap leach operation at the Warf mine.

Immediately to the south of the F3 claims that surround the Newark project, are hundreds of claims held by United Lithium which is proposing to mine lithium in the area stretching from Highway 16 to south of Pringle, SD. Jarding said there are also lithium claims north of the Black Elk Wilderness, as well as lithium mining south of Custer on private lands. Because lithium mining in South Dakota requires only a 1-page application, Jarding said there will likely be more projects in the future. She said the potential and actual exploration and mining by United Lithium and at least 8 other lithium operators in the Black Hills should be included as cumulative impacts.

(Contact Marnie Cook at cookm8715@gmail.com)








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