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SB 2037 gets committee hearing

By Staff | Mar 15, 2019

Sue Sitter/PCT North Dakota State Geologist Ed Murphy (right) testifies before the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee in Bismarck last Thursday.

Pierce County area residents traveled to the North Dakota House of Representatives last Thursday to testify as the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee conducted a hearing on a bill addressing high-level nuclear waste.

Senate Bill 2037 regulates disposal, storage, retrieval and transportation of high-level radioactive waste brought to North Dakota from sites such as nuclear weapons facilities and nuclear power plants. The waste covered by the bill does not include material with low-level radiation such as medical waste or material from oil drilling.

Throughout the hearing, representatives, government officials and citizens pointed out that North Dakota has never had such waste within its borders.

“This is a different beast than we’ve ever had in North Dakota, high-level radioactive waste,” said Rebecca Leier of the North Dakota Community Alliance, a group of Pierce County citizens formed after a 2016 attempt by a team of federal and private researchers to drill a deep bore hole to explore for a potential storage site.

Pierce County Commissioners were able to stop the project by issuing a moratorium against deep bore hole drilling.

The test had been proposed based on the idea stable rock located under North Dakota and neighboring states may provide suitable conditions for storage of high-level radioactive nuclear waste.

A bill written in the State Senate in 2017 addressed future exploration for storage, disposal and retrieval of the waste, but it ended the biennial session as a study, and contained language that would bar local governments from stopping exploration, storage, disposal or retrieval of high-level nuclear waste.

The 2017 bill, SB 2156, would confine local governments’ roles to limiting the size, scope and location of proposed sites.

When the legislative session began early this year, much of the language from SB-2156 was present in SB-2037, a new attempt to regulate how high-level nuclear waste is addressed in North Dakota.

Members of the North Dakota Community Alliance traveled to Senate hearings and worked with State Senator Jerry Klein to amend SB-2037. Both Klein and Representative Jon Nelson helped to include language to give local agencies and citizens a larger role in decisions pertaining to high-level nuclear waste within their communities.

As the bill appeared in committee Thursday, legislators heard testimony from North Dakota Legislative Council member Christopher Joseph.

Joseph said of the bill: “It authorizes the Industrial Commission to regulate drilling, excavating, construction, operation and onsite inspections.”

Joseph also said the bill designated the three-person Industrial Commission as a point of contact for proposals pertaining to the waste when the legislature was not in session.

Representative and House Natural Resources Committee member Mike Lefor (R-Dickinson) asked, “Mr. Joseph, if I’m understanding this right, it does not allow for a county to accept or decline approval to have that in their county. Why is that? That’s concerning to me. I’d like to make this as tough as we can, to require a county to approve it first, and then if they approve it, for it to go to the state. What’s wrong with that?”

State Geologist Ed Murphy, who also testified at the committee, addressed the question.

“The Pierce County group tried a number of ways to get local control into this process, and we ran that through our attorneys, and a committee that had been set up, and they’ve come and gone with (State Environmental Health Chief) David Glatt and Health Department attorneys, and unfortunately, we kept coming back with this committee that the best way was what they first suggested, was they could not say no, but could have control over the size, scope and location.”

“Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with federal issues what we were looking at primarily was a federal repository. And we’re trying to get the state to have some say in this process, so bringing in the local control and giving them a say was about as much as we could do on that issue.”

Murphy said state and local agencies were looking to other states to develop an updated policy that would help them address federal attempts to put nuclear waste within their boundaries.

Murphy spoke about modeling policy on that of Wyoming, “because it was a rural western state. We also looked at those other nine states, we decided to cherry pick some of the best things in their laws.”

Murphy said legislators worked with groups such as the North Dakota Community Alliance to amend SB-2037 to include an advisory council composed of two legislators, officials from state agencies relating to health and the environment, county commissioners and mayors from the area where waste sites were located.

District 14 Representative Jon Nelson said he would work to include two more legislators on the advisory council – one representing the majority party and one representing the minority party for a total of four legislators on the council.

The advisory council would have the power to issue reports, including reports on various factors that could lead to notices of disapproval of potential exploration or handling of high-level nuclear waste.

“That report is very important,” Murphy said. “We thought that rather than to leave that to one agency, it would be best to leave that to this advisory council.”

As for expanding local control, Murphy indicated, “We have tried. And believe me, the Community Alliance has every opportunity to bring that issue up.”

North Dakota Community Alliance member Stephanie Steinke spoke on looking to states such as Utah as a guide for legislation addressing federal proposals pertaining to high-level radioactive waste.

Steinke outlined several areas in SB 2037 that could be amended to strengthen the bill.

Pointing out the State Geologist’s role in the bill’s current form, she said, “No other state allows an unelected official, such as the State Geologist, to advocate on behalf of the Industrial Commission for the whole state.”

She described the thought that state laws would not hold up against federal laws as “not entirely true.”

“If we have a process in place, we can have a seat at the table,” Steinke indicated.

The hearing also included testimony from Glatt, who also praised the addition of an advisory council to SB-2037; Wayde Schafer of the Dakotah Chapter of the Sierra Club and Liz Anderson of the Dakota Resource Council.

Larry Heilmann, Fargo, testified against SB 2037.

“I’m a retired research biochemist,” he told the committee.

Heilmann described working with a type of lower-level waste, called “tnorm” waste, in his career, and the challenges he encountered with a proposal to dispose of that waste.

“I do not think that eastern North Dakota is a suitable site,” he said. “Senate Bill 2037 is merely a management adjustment to ensure the state will have some rules in place if the federal government ever decides to bring such waste to North Dakota. I see it as an invitation to industry and government for that purpose,” Heilmann said.

Pointing out the 2016 bore hole proposal for Pierce County, he said, “The fact that site was selected some three years ago by the energy company Battelle without any notice to state or local officials makes this story worse.”

After referring to numerous geographical and logistical problems involved in handling the waste, Heilmann said, “I ask that the committee give this bill a do not pass recommendation.”

SB 2037 went to another House committee hearing Thursday morning.

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