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Coal meetings draw protesters, residents speak out against proposed mine at hearings

Press Photo by Lisa Miller Residents listen to their friends and neighbors testify about the effects a proposed coal mine and power plant will have on them. Opponents of the project sported yellow t-shirts with the phrases "Neighbors United," and "Beyond Coal" in bold lettering on them. 'Neighbors United' is the name of a group opposing the coal mine.

More than 100 people attended meetings discussing a proposed coal mine and power plant near South Heart on Tuesday at the Beck Auditorium at Dickinson State University.

During the first session at 10 a.m. about 10 people attended. But, at the evening session, approximately 100 people showed up, a majority sporting yellow T-shirts signifying opposition.

Nearly a dozen South Heart, Dickinson, Belfield, Bismarck and Medora residents voiced their concerns about the negative effects the project will have on water quality, farming and business practices, health and the enjoyment of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The hearings, called informal conferences, are part of the Public Service Commission's review process for the mining application. The Commission has received several applications for the coal mine over the last few years, all of which have either been withdrawn and resubmitted by South Heart Coal LLC or denied do to deficiencies, according to previous Press articles.

The latest application went under several revisions due to hundreds of deficiencies before it was deemed complete in January, according to a previous Press article.

"I don't know much about coal mining or the PSC but I do know about crops and cows," said South Heart resident Frank Hurt. "Sure we can install pipelines and haul water but that costs money, and although they say they will return things to the way they are now or as close as they can as possible, what they really mean is if our attorney can beat their attorney and our cows don't need water for three or four years, we'll be OK."

Hurt added by farming and ranching, South Heart residents can produce multiple crops for many years which supply numerous families with food; coal mining is a one-time crop that produces little.

"You guys sitting up here in the suits, I bet you go out for steak once in a while, well you can gnaw on steak now but can you gnaw on coal at night and be satisfied," Hurt said.

South Heart resident Gordon Krance said he was concerned that South Heart Coal LLC is withholding information from the residents.

"The plans keep changing," Krance said. "We requested an environmental impact study many years ago and were told it would take too long to do it -- that was four years ago, it takes two years to do the study we could have done it twice."

He pleaded with hearing officials to consider the town's way of life, people's health and livelihood when making the decision.

"I hear a lot of talk 'we will replace the water, we will fix the roads, we will reclaim the land,' not once have I heard someone from South Heart Coal LLC confidently stand up and say "I will replace your health if you get cancer,'" South Heart resident Lora Tangen said. "We know it's because they can't replace our health. I don't deserve to suffer health complications so a big coal company can make money."

Rich Southwick, a vice president for Great Northern Project Development, said the 4,600-acre mine would produce about 2.5 million tons of lignite annually, create about 150 permanent jobs. The site's coal could be mined and land later reclaimed while keeping environmental disruption to a minimum.

He confirmed the mine would be about 13 miles from TRNP, but added operations will have a low profile and should not be visible from the park or by motorists driving by on

Interstate 94.

He said the coal mine and electric power plant will only be practical if the federal government imposes new emissions limits on carbon dioxide.

Hearing officer Allen Hoberg said the commission will consider all testimony, documents, and matters on file regarding the project, and then issue a final finding and ruling on the matter.

He added another portion of the informal meeting will be held later this summer or fall.

Southwick and Carrie La Seur, an attorney and president of Plains Justice, an environmental organization, said they do not expect a final commission decision on the project until next year.

"The burden of proof, or burden of persuasion, in this matter is on the applicant South Heart Coal LLC to show by the preponderance of the evidence, also known as the greater weight of the evidence that it is entitled to the application it is seeking under the facts and applicable law," Hoberg said.

The meeting went past press time. For more updates visit www.thedickinsonpress.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this story

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