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ND coal is here to stay

With enough coal to fuel North Dakota and surrounding states for more than 800 years, industry officials are confident the business of mining the resource is here to stay.

"It's an industry that has been very stable compared to agriculture or other industries," said Steve Van Dyke, vice president of communications for the Lignite Energy Council in Bismarck.

The coal industry is ranked No. 5 in North Dakota behind agriculture, tourism, manufacturing and oil production, Van Dyke said. An oil boom in western North Dakota pushed the coal business down from the No. 4 spot, he added. North Dakota is the second largest producer of oil behind Texas.

Of the 351 billion tons of lignite coal underground in western North Dakota, the state has 25 billion tons of economically mineable coal, according to the North Dakota Geological Survey. The area consumes about 29 million tons per year, ranking the state 10th in the nation, said Carol Raulston, senior vice president of communication for the National Mining Association in Washington, D.C.

The state is also seventh in the nation for electricity affordability at 6.64 cents per kilowatt-hour, well below the national average of 10 cents, she said. Coal generates 90 percent of the electricity used in the state.

Lignite coal must be processed near the mines, Raulston said. Seven plants produce electricity near the sites.

"You're getting both benefits from both ends -- the coal mining and then it is used right there in North Dakota or very close to North Dakota," she said.

Since it produces more than it can consume, it exports most of its resources out of state, Van Dyke said.

"About 50 percent of it goes to Minnesota, and probably another 25 percent goes to other states --Montana, Iowa, South Dakota," he said, adding only the eastern side of Montana is serviced my North Dakota coal.

The industry is not affected by gas prices or weather like agriculture or tourism, Van Dyke said, adding workers will often retire from a 40-year career from the same company.

Environmental safety is second to none for coal businesses, and it reclaims land to a state as good as, if not better, than before it started, he said.

South Heart resident Gordon Krance has concerns about the environmental welfare of land near coal mines. A proposed 8,000-acre coal mine and power plant near the town could affect water quality, he said. The controversial proposal has sparked a lawsuit by the Dacotah Chapter of Sierra Club in Bismarck against state Public Service Commissioners Kevin Cramer, Brian Kalk and Tony Clark for accepting $54,000 in campaign contributions from coal mining companies, including South Heart Coal Inc. LLC, the company proposing the mine.

"They reclaim the land, but the one thing they can never reclaim is the water resource," Krance said, adding the coal industry should stay out of South Heart.