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Senate nuclear waste bill draws county attention

By Staff | Jan 25, 2019

Sue Sitter/PCT Pierce County resident Chuck Volk speaks to attendees of a meeting pertaining to North Dakota Senate Bill 2037 Monday afternoon at Dakota Farms.

An issue many Pierce County residents thought was settled in 2016 is making its way back through North Dakota’s state legislature, and a small group of citizens wants people to know about it.

The North Dakota Community Alliance, a group consisting of Pierce County residents, presented information Monday afternoon at Rugby’s Dakota Farms restaurant about North Dakota Senate Bill 2037, which addresses exploration to locate storage space two miles deep in the earth’s crust for radioactive waste from sites in the United States and overseas.

The issue was brought to Pierce County’s attention in 2016, when residents voiced opposition to a proposed “bore hole” to be located near Balta on a section of land set aside by the state long ago for a school. The project was to be done by the United States Department of Energy.

The prior exploration was stopped because Pierce County refused to issue a permit to do so, according to Rebecca Leier, who presented the information Monday.

After the initial rejection, Leier told the group,” They moved on with the project.” Leier said the scientists conducting the exploration went to an area near Redfield, South Dakota, which sits on the same bed of stable granite as eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota.

“They received opposition to that as well. After they realized this was not the right approach, they realized they needed to do more public relations. They actually hired four individual companies, and whatever company was able to get a community to participate in the project would be awarded the contract for the deep bore hole project. Again, they met strong opposition, and they eventually pulled the funding, and the project was scuttled, basically,” Leier noted.

Stephanie Steinke, who also presented information, told the group the issue highlighted a need to strengthen provisions for counties targeted for such projects to have a voice in the process.

Stephanie Steinke, Rugby Mayor Sue Steinke, Leier and Pierce County resident Chuck Volk discussed the legislative process that they said could impact the role local governments could have in future projects.

“In 2016, they had not approved this project at the state level,” Stephanie Steinke said, “So, we were able to get busy and pass a zoning moratorium against deep bore hole exploration drilling it’s still in place, and it’s going to be challenged if a the new amended bill comes into play. So, we asked for that little bit to be changed.”

The “little bit” is part of Senate Bill 2156, which was drawn up in 2017.

Leier read original text from SB 2156: “Deposit of High-Level Radioactive Waste Material Legislated and Local Approval Required: A person may not deposit, or cause, or permit to be deposited in this state any high-level radioactive waste material which has been brought into this state for that purpose unless prior approval has been granted by concurrent resolution passed by legislative assembly, accounting zoning approval may not preclude the disposal development if approved by the legislative assembly, but may regulate the size, scope and location.”

“So,” Leier continued, you can hear from there that we had already gone into this having some criteria, but we couldn’t do a lot as a county. You can’t go against the Legislature if they have approved a project.”

Leier said the old bill is being used as a “bookmark” to hold its place until the new bill, SB 2037, which goes to committee hearing next week, is worked on.

Leier noted the original two paragraph piece of legislation has grown to more than 14 pages in length.

“This basically made a little roadmap. Follow A to Z. And this is what we’re concerned about. Why would we go from something that’s clear we really don’t want you here, to if you came, here’s what you need to do?”

The presenters said North Dakota has many qualities that would make it ideal for nuclear waste storage.

“One reason North Dakota was picked was that we have really stable geology,” Stephanie Steinke explained. “We don’t have earthquakes; we don’t have some of these other problems that California or the coast has. So that’s what makes North Dakota attractive. So, it’s not really fear-mongering; if you read the documents, they continually mention that the stable granite shelf that we sit on top of makes it a safe place. To them, a safe place means low population, and no earthquakes. So, that was one reason.”

Rugby Mayor Sue Steinke passed around a map detailing a line separating the stable crystalline rock shelf from oil-producing rock. The line roughly traces the length of North Dakota Highway 3.

Other aspects that make the land a target include an increased need to find a place to store radioactive waste.

Citing Hanford, Washington’s nuclear waste problem as an example, Leier said, “It’s terrible, to the tune of $4.3 billion, and they can’t clean it up. They’re hoping to get their waste formed into glass pellets, and shipped to North Dakota. And in 2016, they were very hopeful we would take the borehole, planning ahead that it would come here.”

Stephanie Steinke also brought up the possibility the Federal Department of Energy could re-classify types of nuclear waste in the future, which would affect oversight for its storage.

Volk noted other changes in the Department of Energy could affect the role local consent plays for communities near storage sites. Citing a Department of Energy web page titled, “Consent-Based Siting” he said, “If you look at all the Department of Energy website right now this is what you’ll find: ‘Thank you for your interest in this topic, we are currently updating our website to reflect the department’s priorities under leadership.'”

Leier, Volk and Stephanie Steinke all emphasized the importance of involvement at the exploration level, the study stage to locate storage and disposal sites for nuclear waste.

“Exploration, plus even questionable viability (of a project) equals federal eminent domain,” Leier cautioned. “So, because of that, we are asking in our amendment that we have tighter local control of that first process that exploration.”

Leier outlined seven amendments local citizens want to be placed in SB 2037. She said the bill would not affect storage of waste from the oil industry.

The amendments would give local communities more notice for input on future projects, including a notification radius of 30 miles, provisions for letters of support from local governments, and protections for watersheds. It would strengthen the role of local governments at the exploration stage, and address protocol for accidents resulting in radioactive leaks during the material’s transport. The amendments would also include provisions for a bond, which would provide funds involved in hazardous waste cleanup, safety, and site maintenance. The bond would be funded by the companies seeking waste storage.

Volk cited incidents where radioactive waste, thought to be safely stored, leaked into water systems as far as 175 miles away. He addressed the possibility of waste in the Mouse and Pembina Rivers, which flow north to Canada.

Volunteer firefighter Dallas Hager told the group Pierce County’s first responders are not trained or equipped to handle incidents involving radioactive materials, which could leak during transportation.

Presenters urged residents to contact their District 14 legislators or supply their contact information to the North Dakota Community Alliance if they wish to attend upcoming hearings in Bismarck.

In a press release emailed to the Tribune, the North Dakota Community Alliance said, “SB 2037 is expected to have its second committee hearing on proposed amendments the first week of February, 2019. Information about the bill, amendments, and times and dates of committee hearings for the bill are available on our Facebook page, our website, and the ND legislature’s website. Any requests for information, updates, or interviews may be directed to the email, website, or Facebook pages. If you would like to join our mailing list for updates please email ndcommunityalliance@gmail.com

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