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Proposed gasification plant is subject of meeting in Dickinson

DICKINSON - Get it in writing was a point made several times by speaker Carrie La Seur, with the environmental law firm Plains Justice, during a meeting called, "A Neighbor's Guide to Coal" Thursday evening at American Bank Center in north Dickinson.

The meeting room at the center was filled with more than 20 people interested in hearing La Seur.

The informational meeting was put on by the Badlands Area Resource Council which is a southwest North Dakota affiliate of the Dakota Resource Council (DRC). The council asked La Seur to speak on the topic of her work with coal-based plants and other companies in the country.

La Seur addressed many topics of interest at the meeting, which directly centered on the $1.4 billion coal gasification plant being proposed by Great Northern Power Development LP near the town of South Heart in Stark County.

"I was asked to talk to you today about coal plant siting...the process, your rights, how you can get involved in the process, resources affected and answer your questions on any of these things and other things," La Seur said. "What we're seeing around here is a small part of the 21st century coal rush. There are 133 active plants in development nationwide...two in North Dakota."

Many of the people present were interested in La Seur's experience and advice on matters of environmental assessments, issues and legal procedures when it comes to the proposed plant and mine's affect on local land, water and air.

With Plains Justice, La Seur serves areas in Iowa, Nebraska, the Dakotas and eastern Montana. La Seur is originally from Minot and is a Yale graduate and Rhodes Scholar.

A large part of her job has seen the hard work and determination of what happens when local people stand together to ensure their concerns are addressed on things such as coal-based plants.

"You are stronger together, which is a powerful tactic," La Seur said. "Right now I'm working with 17 farmers who are fighting against a transmission line that would go through their land and are concerned about the new combines' technology with not being able to use the GPS equipment...which could diminish the value of their land."

Questions from the public Thursday circled around protecting water resources such as wells from the mining, how to do that, emissions profiles, environmental assessments and how they work.

The main concern from many seemed how to protect themselves legally when or if they are affected in some way by the proposed plant and mining. Many questions were answered with what La Seur said is a "lawyer answer."

"When getting information from them you have to get it in writing whatever it is so you have something to stand on later," she said. "Get as many details as you can about whatever it may be and make sure if you've asked them something, you have it written down."

Many present at the meeting Thursday indicated during it they had gone to a packed public meeting put on by Great Northern at South Heart Public School's gymnasium Wednesday night. The GNPD meeting presented the public with information on their project and had a question and answer session.

La Seur also went and gave her impression of it to the crowd gathered around here Thursday.

"It seemed during the questioning (part) there were incomplete answers," she said of the GNPD meeting.

When asked by participants what she could give her impression in regards to specifics of the plant and emissions, La Seur could not be as specific as she'd like.

"I can't analyze data I don't have," La Seur said. "I want to hear and see what the emissions profile is. We don't have specs or engineers' drawings, so your guess is as good as mine. Where the emissions will be or how they will be handled I'm not clear on."

The permit process was a big part of questions and discussion at the Thursday meeting, especially air and water permits. People also wanted to know if the GNPD's process thus far is similar to what La Seur has seen elsewhere which she said it was.

"We saw it in Waterloo (Iowa) and neighboring states," La Seur said. "If they (the company) get local proposals taken care of before they get a full analysis of the emissions profile it makes it difficult to be critical without the data which is a pattern I see."

From the business' perspective it's getting something out of the way that they will expect to be easy, she added.

"So when they get to the state level they can say, 'we have local...approval so why not give us our permit,'" La Seur said. "It develops a sense of inevitability."

Participants also discussed information they've been given about the proposed South Heart plant project being different or inconsistent Thursday evening.

Again, La Seur and other council representatives said to get information in writing in order to refer to later.

Further questions asked of La Seur included how an Environmental Impact Statement or studies can be done.

La Seur and others answered that for the most part, local entities such as county commissions can get independent consultants to do the studies if the public says that is desired.

Council members and South Heart residents Neil Tangen and Mary Hodell were present at both public meetings this week. Both still have many questions to be answered on the whole project.

"Neil Messer working for Great Northern asked us as council members to come up with our questions to give them which we did and still have not been answered," Hodell said. "We did that before the meeting this week. I also stayed after the meeting to ask them face-to-face, but was not answered."

Hodell said she planned to bring up her questions to GNPD or the North Dakota Public Service Commission to get answers on things such as the expansion of the mining area.