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EDITORIAL: Legislature’s effort on nuclear waste disposal an insult to Pierce County

By Staff | Feb 1, 2019

Three years ago, Pierce County put the kibosh on a proposed borehole test drilling to determine whether the area would be suitable for, among other things, nuclear waste disposal.

The proposal at that time was handled poorly out of the gate. County governing authorities did not learn of it right away from the point groups on the project: The Battelle Institute and the University of North Dakota’s Energy & Economics Resource Center. Instead they learned from newspaper reports and from citizens who read them.

But now a bill is going through the state Legislature that, in its current state, would not give Pierce County residents and governing bodies a say in the matter of nuclear waste storage and disposal should the matter ever come up again. In fact, it is directly contradictory to the will of County leaders and most residents.

S.B. 2037-in its current version on the N.D. Legislative Branch website-makes the state’s Industrial Commission (acting through the state geologist) the “point of contact for federal agencies on matters concerning radioactive waste storage and disposal; and gives them authority to issue notices of disapproval when the Legislature isn’t in session.”

When it is in session, the Legislature can issue disapproval notices.

However the Industrial Commission has the authority to enforce rules the bill puts in place.

Who is on the Industrial Commission? Currently it’s Gov. Doug Burgum, N.D. Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring. We’ll come back to this in just a minute.

The bill also makes it so that county zoning laws can’t prohibit nuclear waste facilities that the Industrial Commission gave approval for. The only thing counties can do is regulate the “size, scope and location.”

In essence, if the feds want to store nuclear waste on some plot of School Trust Land in Pierce County and the Industrial Commission approves it, Pierce County cannot say “No.” How can this not seem to residents as a betrayal of trust by the very people they elect to represent them in Bismarck?

Here’s the part where things get hazy: There were people in the state government who cried foul when the EPA under the Obama Administration wanted to define sloughs as waters people can’t dump unwanted materials into i.e., the Waters of the U.S. rule. In fact, Stenehjem was a leader in filing a request to stop that rule from being implemented in 13 states, including North Dakota, arguing that the federal government overstepped its authority.

But now legislators want to give permit approval authority over nuclear waste storage to themselves when in session and to a three-person commission when not in session? And legislators also want to give the same three-person commission enforcement authority should the feds want that nuclear waste stored somewhere in North Dakota? How does any of this make sense?

S.B. 2037 in its current form is senseless and terrible policy. And should both chambers of the Legislature pass it and the governor approves it, it will be a betrayal of the very people who put them in office.

The opinions expressed in this article reflect those of Tribune editorial staff.

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