- Case Study:

Click photo to view slideshow

Cave Hills, SD (Lakota et. al.) (2006)

For the most recent information contact The Defender of the Black Hills .

The Place

If you are ever driving north on the CanAm Highway, that is US 85, from the Black Hills of South Dakota, just north of Buffalo, SD in Harding County and you look to your left you will see the Cave Hills, a portion of the Custer National Forest. Harding County gives meaning to the word broad. It stretches out over 2670.5 square miles, an area the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. However, the 2005 Census Estimate places only 1,218 people living in Harding County. That is a population density of less that 1 person per every 2 square miles, and decreasing. In many places, the Hills would not seem particularly impressive, but you have just crossed 85 miles of some of the flattest, plainest, and least inhabited country in the lower 48. That stretch of road and plains is what first seems to make the Cave Hills so impressive.
The Cave Hills stand as two massive sandstone plateaus rising, in some places, 600 feet above the flat prairie. Their tops are shrouded in the beautifully dark green of ponderosa pine, which contrasts greatly with the golden yellows of the prairie and the Tongue River Sandstone, of which they are composed. When settlers first reached that Cave Hills they found the Hills useful for many of the same reasons that Plains Indians found them to be sacred for millennia. The Hills are sources of scarce, reliable clear water springs, even scarcer timber, and always important game. This group of tribes is as diverse as the Lakota, Mandan, Arikara, Hidatsa, and possibly even the Cheyenne and Crow, and have been conducting ceremonies in the Cave Hills for generations.

Historical, Religious, and Cultural Significance

The petroglyphs carved into the soft sandstone, among the oldest northern Plains Indian petroglyphs still in existence, the tipi rings, the springs, caves, and the burial sites scattered throughout the Cave Hills, all of which are regarded as sacred -- attest to their presence and reverence for the place. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, Rosebud Sioux Tribe, and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe have all submitted statements to the Forest Service asserting the sacredness of the North Cave Hills and the surrounding series of buttes and mesas. In these statements various examples were put forth to verify the sacredness of the Hills. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe stated the connectedness of the buttes with their creation story and oral histories. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe explained in their resolution that the caves in the North and South Cave Hills are connected underground to Wind Cave in the southern Black Hills, where the Lakota believe they where born onto this Earth.
The North Cave Hills, as well as the surrounded buttes, are also known to have been important eagle trapping sites, a highly ritualized and sanctified practice for the Mandan, Arikara, Hidatsa, and Lakota. A Hidatsa eagle trapping lodge has been found in the North Cave Hills, and eagle trapping pits have been found in the nearby Slim Buttes. According to Albert LeBeau, of Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, the Slim Buttes, Red Hills, Cave Hills, and other surrounding buttes are of an identical cultural landscape. Ethnographers have recorded a Hidatsa story of the Red Hills; it is said that there several Hidatsa encountered snakes, which are known to the Hidatsa as the first eagle trappers, and it is was in those hills that the Hidatsa were taught the sacred practice of eagle trapping.
The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara know the North Cave Hills as the Buffalo Home Buttes. This stems from a traditional belief that the spirits of buffalo inhabit the underground world and reemerge each spring to repopulate the plains. The Lakota are also known to share this belief. One cave in particular, Ludlow Cave, is known as a place where buffalo emerge from the Earth. The name of this cave references a darker period in the history of the Northern Plains Tribes. Gen. Armstrong Custer traveled past the Cave Hills during his 1874 expedition to the Black Hills. While he camped in the Cave Hills, Custer named a cave sacred to Natives peoples of the region after the engineer who accompanied his expedition, a Col. William Ludlow, and this is cave is now inscribed with the names of white travelers. Goose, the Lakota-Arikara scout that accompanied Gen. Custer described the cave as a place where “Indians at one time were wont to congregate for the purpose of holding intercourse with the Great Spirit.” The end result of Custer’s 1874 Expedition was the Lakota’s infamous loss of the sacred Black Hills because of the gold he found there.

Uranium Mining in the Cave Hills

The Cave Hills are a beautiful, impressive sight and a highly significant sacred and historical place for many Native peoples. However, if you leave the highway right after the dot on the map that is Ludlow, SD (also named after that engineer), that gravel road will take you to a startling relic of the Atomic Age: The Riley Pass Uranium Mine. There are 89 mines in the Sioux Ranger District of the Custer National Forest; however, the Riley Pass Mine Area, which includes the 13 individual mine sites located throughout the North Cave Hills, conatins the most toxic and most accessible of the mines on National Forest land in Harding County. The company that mined at Riley Pass still exists, which cannot be said for many of the “mom and pop” operations that worked the Sioux Ranger District in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The Kerr-McGee Company, then Kermac, mined the area from 1962 to 1964. No uranium has been removed since 1964, but the mine was never reclaimed and erosion has brought toxic and radioactive piles of slag down from the mine sites into the draws and creeks. The toxic tailings from the mines bring arsenic, molybdenum, thorium, radium 226, total uranium, uranium 235, and heavy metals with them down the washes and creeks. At the time, during the rush to procure uranium for nuclear weapons and then nuclear power, no requirements of reclamation were placed on the mine companies who were mining public land (Rapid City Journal). The Riley Pass Mine Area is so toxic that a sign warned you not to spend more than 24 hours in a twelve month period there, but even that sign was not erected until 2002, and has since been torn down by vandals. Recently, people have begun to ask why these mines have been left unreclaimed for over forty years.
The simplest answer is that the Cave Hills are in Harding County, South Dakota. The interested parties are a small contingent: Harding County residents, Plains Indian Tribes, and the deer hunters that flock to the Hills for its renowned deer hunting. Moreover, with the Forest Service lacking funding and Kerr-McGee not required by law to reclaim the mines, a sort of vacuum of responsibility has surrounded the abandoned mines. However, things might be beginning to change. People began to take notice after the warning sign was erected at Riley Pass, and they began to ask questions. People started to talk about cancer in humans and diseases in the cattle that graze the hills.


Truthfully, the cancer rate in Harding County is actually lower than South Dakota’s overall cancer rate. However, that might be expected in county as unpopulated as Harding County; there are not many pollutants when your nearest neighbor lives 5 miles away. Yet, even though the overall cancer rate in the county is low, the types of cancers that appear in Harding County are alarming; eleven cases of rare brain tumors have been diagnosed in Harding County in the past decade. A letter from South Dakota Department of Health officials stated that pituitary tumors occur in one in 10,000 people at autopsy, and of the 1,218 people in Harding County, 4 have pituitary cancers. One resident, Linda Stephens, after being diagnosed with a rare brain tumor, asked her neurologist at the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Joon Uhm, why four people of different ages, occupations, and lifestyles would all be diagnosed with the same rare brain tumor. His reply was simply “uranium,” related Stephens.
In addition to those facts, a Forest Service risk assessment found unacceptably high carcinogenic risks for the cattle ranchers and hunters who frequent the Riley Pass area, meaning that their risk was above the level the EPA deems a “concern.” These risk assessments were based on the calculations that cattle ranchers spend 150 to 210 days a year in the area, and hunters spend 4 hours a day, 32 days a year near Riley Pass. Based on the same calculations, Native American worshippers in the area spend 25 hours per year in the Riley Pass area and have significantly elevated carcinogenic risks, meaning that their carcinogenic risk was within the range that the EPA deems a “concern.” It is important to note what draws each of these groups of people to the area and why they are subjected to cancer causing toxins. A rancher’s profession forces him to work in the area, a hunter’s pastime places him in the area, but a Lakota, Hidatsa, or Mandan is in the area to practice his/her religion. In order for these individuals to experience and revere the sacredness of the Cave Hills, a place connected with the yearly rebirth of the bison, these people must be willing to subject themselves to cancer-causing toxins. In a Christian context, this is comparable to, though not equivalent to, a pilgrim in the Holy Land encountering a warning sign about radiation and arsenic outside of the tomb from which Jesus emerged, resurrected.
In addition to human cancers, toxic tailings are eroding down the draws where cattle graze and their owners live. The tailings are so toxic that they remain mostly unvegetated even 40 plus years after they were abandoned. This makes the tailings even more susceptible to erosion, so the toxins travel even faster down the draws. Ranchers have noticed a graying of cattle coats or a loss of coat altogether in cattle after a couple of years of grazing in and around the Hills. This is a symptom of copper deficiency, a common ailment among cattle in Western South Dakota. However, chemicals like arsenic, present in the tailings, can also cause copper deficiency in cattle. As well as tailings traveling down the draws, the Cave Hills are near headwaters of the South Grand River, which drains into the Shadehill Reservoir before continuing on to the Missouri River. Sediments that become suspended in creeks coming out of the Cave Hills could be continuing down the Grand River to the Shadehill Reservoir, a popular sport fishery, and being deposited in the soils there or even continuing downstream to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, where three villages still use the Grand River as drinking water, and another has during the use of the mine.

The Effect on Native Worshippers

The uranium mines not only threaten the physical health of the residents of Harding County and visitors to the Cave Hills, but also endanger the spiritual well being of the Plains Indians who wish to continue to worship there as they and their ancestors have for generations. Located just east of the Riley Pass Mine Area is a site particularly sacred to Plains Indians (White Face, May 16, 2006), but a sign near the mine warns worshippers, and anyone else for that matter, about the danger of visiting the area of the mine, and thus their holy place for more 24 hours in a twelve month period due to the toxicity and radiation levels. In truth, even that is not entirely “safe.” Radiation cannot come in “safe” levels, any exposure to radiation heightens an individual’s risk of cancers and inheritable genetic defects; however, the likelihood is simply lower the less time is spent in contact with radiation . In addition to the “radiation curfew” for their holy site, other facets of the sacred Cave Hills are indirectly or directly affected by the mines. The Forest Service is currently reviewing an application for an oil drilling permit in the Riley Pass Mine Area. An oil well would have to pass through the uranium bearing lignite coal beds in order to reach the oil below; any breaks or leaks could cause the contamination of ground water, and thus of the sacred springs. In fact, the Defenders of Black Hills, the main advocacy group working on the Cave Hills Uranium Mine Cleanup, maintain that many of the sacred springs need to be tested for contamination before the water can be drunk, forcing Native peoples who wish to drink from the sacred springs from which their ancestors drank to wait for the government to act.

Measures being Taken

The Riley Pass Mine Area has not been completely ignored for the past 40 plus years. Several attempts have been made by the Forest Service to mitigate the effects of tailings. In 1972 Kerr-McGee paid for dams and dikes in two locations to control sediment moving down the draws and also moved a segment of road at Riley Pass. In 1989 the Forest Service built 5 catch basins and the next year they removed 6,700 cubic yards of sediment. After that the Forest Service abandoned further excavations due to the prohibitive cost. Most recently, in 2002 the Forest Service negotiated with Kerr-McGee to clean out sediment from ponds. However, these are merely stop-gap measures in the overall scheme of the Riley Pass Mine. The sediment is still eroding from the slag piles, and people have started to demand a thorough reclamation effort.
Reclaiming open-pit uranium mines is no easy task. The Forest Service is currently under negotiations with Kerr-McGee to reclaim the 6 to 8 mines which Kermac mined in the North Cave Hills for an estimated cost of $14 million. Additionally, the companies that mines the other 4 to 6 mines are no longer entities capable of such a reclamation effort. Thus, the Forest Service is working to develop a plan to reclaim the these mines. The reclamation plan involves driving trucks to the base of the tailing piles, loading the tailings onto trucks, hauling the tailings back to the top of the bluffs were the mines are located, replacing the tailings into the open mines, and then covering the mines with non-contaminated soil. This is obviously a very labor-intensive task, which requires all involved to wear special suits to protect from contaminants in the soil. And this would be for the most readily accessible 13 of the 89 mines Harding County, not to mention other mines throughout the country. The cost would obviously be too prohibitive for one corporation or the Forest Service to cover. Therefore, the Defenders of the Black Hills believe that the only solution is the procurement of special legislation that would allocate the necessary funds to properly cleanup the abandoned uranium mines.
The Defenders of the Black Hills have recently begun aggressively attempting to raise the public’s and politicians’ awareness of South Dakota’s abandoned uranium mines. This can be an uphill battle in a state known for its pro-business and anti-government politics. Currently two bills that address uranium in South Dakota have been passed by the state legislature, and are awaiting gubernatorial approval. One would allow nuclear power plants to be built anywhere in the state of South Dakota. The second, Senate Bill 62, would require corporations wanting to drill exploratory holes for in situ uranium mines to be able to prove that they are financially able to reclaim all holes drilled. Previous regulations required only enough funds needed to fill twenty percent of all holes drilled to be available. Additionally, due to a recent surge in interest in nuclear power around the world, uranium prices recently jumped from $10 to $30 per pound in only a few years, making uranium mining in South Dakota much more appealing to mining companies, and presenting another challenge in the fight for reclamation. Strangely enough, part of the surge in the interest in uranium mining comes from environmentalists, who are beginning to embrace nuclear power because it does not consume fossil fuels.
In an attempt to educate South Dakota politicians on the state of the Harding County uranium mines, the Defenders of the Black Hills attended a meeting in Pierre, SD, the state capital, the focus of which was uranium mining. There, the Defenders of the Black Hills presented evidence on the extent of the damage caused by the Cave Hills uranium mines, as well as evidence of the neglect this issue has received from state government over the past forty years. Charmaine White Face, with the Defenders of the Black Hills, decribed how the Secretary of the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources (SD DENR) did not provide any evidence of previous attention his department had paid to the issue when politicians present at the meeting pressed him on the issue; he did however, promise a full report on the matter.
In response to the meeting in Pierre and increasing public interest, the SD DENR has agreed to test water quality at 38 sites around South Dakota. In concert with state governmental interest, the EPA has given the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, as well as the Forest Service grants to conduct studies of radiation in dust and runoff. The Forest Service, the South Dakota State Historical Society, and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe are currently working to have the Cave Hills placed on the National Register of Historic Places in accordance with the provisions of National Historic Preservation Act. Being designated a National Historic Landmark would place one more layer of protection on the historical, archeological, and cultural resources of the Cave Hills. The Forest Service would be required to take into account the effect that certain activities would have on these resources when investigating whether or not a particular the activity is compatible with the Cave Hills. This designation would be particularly pertinent given the leasing process under way for oil drilling permits in the Cave Hills.


No one disagrees that the uranium mines in Harding County need to be reclaimed; the only question is who will reclaim the mines and how they will go about it. It even appears as though state and federal agencies are applying much more energy to preserve and restore the Cave Hills of South Dakota. However, given the increased interest in uranium mining and cost of such a project, much more effort is needed to reclaim the mines in Harding County, let alone the many more around the country. A great increase in public awareness and interest is the only force capable of meeting such a task.
Drafted and edited by Nate Chappelle.
Updated on July 11, 2006