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Is this bad-bad or just bad?

"Is this bad-bad or just bad?"

by LAUREN DONOVAN, Bismarck Tribune
CAVE HILLS, S.D. -- Randy Feist ranches in such tough country that bad
luck is an old familiar business partner.

Now as it turns out, except for bad luck, he wouldn't have any luck at

He and his ranch neighbors in the North Cave Hills learned two weeks go that the abandoned uranium mines around them have such high concentrations of heavy metals and uranium products that they are described as toxic waste ites.

Their risk of cancer is sky-high. Reclamation is in dispute.

There aren't many ranchers out in the ponderosa pine and mesas of Cave Hills south of Bowman, across the state line.

Feist and four others have permits to graze cattle on the 8,000 U.S. Forest Service acres where the mines are located.

When they can count their population on less than two hands, they figure the cost of cleanup would never balance in favor of so few.

The Forest Service is in negotiations with Kerr-McGee, an energy company, to reclaim nine of 12 mines in the North Cave Hills at a cost of about $14 million.

After several years, there's been no agreement.

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.

Feist and the other ranchers with grazing permits have lived with the mines for years, some for decades. One ranch woman said her kids played up there all the time because the dust would fly under their horses' hooves just like in the Western movies at the show hall in town.

The kids would come home covered in dust, she said. One of those kids, not yet 30, has cancer.

It wasn't until those scary yellow and red signs went up in 2002 that the alarm really went off.

After hearing the recent environmental report, the ranchers know what they're up against. It's not visible like the dry ground when rain is needed or the short grass again this spring.

Feist, thin but feisty like his name, had a cancerous kidney removed in September. He said he figured he could die and deal with the dying, but the consequence to his wife and three small kids scared him.

Pat Seccomb, of Portage Environmental, reported the company's findings on soil tests from around the mines compared to tests right at the mines. 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

He knew something was wrong when he started to feel almost crippling back pain, but thought it was from working sheep. Turned out it was cancer, caught just before it moved elsewhere.

The report also found that deer hunters and Plains Indians who go to the Cave Hills for cultural and religious purposes are at risk for cancer. Deer hunters have the higher odds at 1-in-1,700 for metals like arsenic and 1-in-1,250 for exposure to uranium products because they consume the venison from
deer that browse the mines.

For Plains Indians, the cancer risk is in the range of 1-in-17,000 for uranium exposure and 1-in-50,000 for arsenic.

Feist and others met in the community hall at Buffalo, S.D., on a spring night more like winter with driving snow. No one complained about the weather. It was wet, after all.

The public meeting was arranged by the Forest Service to publicize the environmental findings.

After Seccomb's report, Feist had just one question.

"Is this bad-bad or just bad?"

Seccomb put it this way: "I wouldn't want to be these guys."

How at risk the ranchers are depends on how much time they spend working cattle around the mines.

The most significant risk comes from eating their own beef, which they all do, every day. That risk is greatest because not only do cattle ingest some soil with every bite of grass, they also drink the arsenic-laced surface water.

For others who eat that beef out in the national food chain, the risk is nearly immeasurable over a lifetime's consumption.

Chad Rotenberger is one of the five permittees. He and his wife have two little girls and a baby on the way. There are three abandoned uranium mines upwind from their house.

"I want it cleaned up. I want to know what the risk is for our family," he said. "I love it here, but it's not about that; it's about my wife and my kids."

Two of his neighbors have died of cancer, one from leukemia and the other from brain cancer. Both cancers are linked to uranium exposure. And then there's Feist, with a missing kidney and an abandoned mine just over the hill from his place.

For these ranchers, the days are getting shorter.

q q q

Kerr-McGee -- then Kermac Corp. -- was within its rights when it opened the tops of eight Cave Hills bluffs between 1962 and 1964, extracted 157,000 pounds of uranium oxide found in lignite and left without a backward glance.
There were hundreds, if not thousands, of small and large uranium mines opened throughout the West, including North Dakota. All it took to open a mine was to stake a claim, like during the gold rush.

Some of the lignite was burned for its uranium-containing ash at kilns near Bowman and Belfield.

There was no such concept as reclamation back then. The Atomic Energy Commission had a huge appetite for uranium to feed its Cold War arsenal. Even though the Cave Hills mines, home to the richest uranium deposits in the country, were on Forest Service land, uranium was so desired by the government that mining was completely unrestricted and the Forest Service was given no
regulatory authority.

Things are different now. The problem is in the Forest Service's lap.

Bob Wintergerst of the Forest Service said his agency has already ordered Kerr-McKee to clean up the sites because of the threat to human health, a fact that supercedes the lack of reclamation responsibility.

Kerr-McGee has so far refused to sign the Administrative Order of Consent, though the two sides continue to talk. The order was issued in 2003.

The order results from the Forest Service's authority under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Reclamation, Compensation and Liability Act.

The act -- CERCLA -- also is known as the "Superfund." The funds come from taxes on oil and chemicals.

Today, Kerr-McGee describes itself as an energy and inorganic chemical company.

It is the third-largest producer of titanium dioxide, a pigment that whitens paints, plastics and paper. It "exited" the uranium business in 1989.

John Christiansen, a spokesman for Kerr-McGee, based in Oklahoma City, said his company is serious about safety and environmental issues and is willing to do the cleanup it's being asked to do.

The corporation is currently sharing an $8 million cleanup of two uranium mines in Oregon with two other companies. It was a hard-won agreement, taking 15 years and a formal record of decision through CERCLA by the federal government.

Where Kerr-McGee parts ways on the Cave Hills cleanup is whether it should fall under CERCLA.

Christiansen said the North Cave Hills have widespread, naturally occurring mineralization.

"We are challenging if we should to it under (the act)," he said. "We have offered to do the work under other administrative arrangements. We believe that by doing the work as a mine reclamation under a consent order, we could accomplish the cleanup in a more expedient and efficient manner."

Christiansen wouldn't say whether agreeing to a cleanup under CERCLA means his company is more exposed to injury claims from individuals.

Wintergerst said that if Kerr-McGee won't sign the order, the Forest Service can proceed to a Unilateral Order of Consent. Those get played out in court and carry penalties from fines to imprisonment.

The Forest Service is awaiting an engineering evaluation to get a hard cost on cleanup at North Cave Hills. It could include at least temporarily fencing off the abandoned mine areas from people and cattle. The Forest Service already is trapping water and silt that flows off the mines into sediment ponds.

The toxic silt from those ponds is trucked back up to the mine areas, where stabilization hasn't met with much success.

Feist and the other permittees have contacted their own lawyer. They tried to interest Erin Brockovich, a real-life former law clerk whose uncovering of a massive corporate toxin leak and its health effects in California was turned into a movie starring Julia Roberts. Brockovich's efforts resulted in a
$333 million injury settlement, the largest of its kind.

The ranchers got as far as her research assistant and learned there aren't enough of them to pique the firm's interest.

That was rancher Susan Clarkson's impression, too, after listening to the environmental report.

"This doesn't look real cost-effective," she said, taking in herself and the few others in the community hall.
Feist has lived in the North Cave Hills all of his life. He was only 4 years old when Kermac, now Kerr-McGee, pulled in with equipment, took uranium out of the beautiful hills around the ranch and pulled out again.

Since then, he's built his own log house, his own family and, he hopes, his own future.

He'd like to know the cost of a life, or even the cost of a kidney, whether it comes anywhere close to the $14 million estimated to cap off those exposed mines.

"They (Kerr-McGee) have a lot of money," he said. "In the bigger picture, there's my health and the health of my kids -- a lot more important things than money."

(Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 888-303-5511 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .)

Mission Statement

"Defenders of the Black Hills is a group of volunteers without racial or tribal boundaries whose mission is to preserve, protect, and restore the environment of the 1851 and 1868 Treaty Territories, Treaties made between the United States and the Great Sioux Nation."

Speaking about radioactive fallout, the late President John F. Kennedy said,

"Even then, the number of children and grandchildren with cancer in their bones, with leukemia in their blood, or with poison in their lungs might seem statistically small to some, in comparison with natural health hazards. But this is not a natural health hazard and it is not a statistical issue. The loss of even one human life, or the malformation of even one baby who may be born long after we are gone, should be of concern to us all. Our children and grandchildren are not merely statistics toward which we can be indifferent."

July 26, 1963 upon signing the ban on above ground nuclear tests