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Stark County Commission OKs rezoning for coal-gas project

DICKINSON - The Stark County Commission unanimously approved the request of Great Northern Power Development to rezone about 4,823 acres of land near South Heart for a coal mine.

The request to rezone the area from agriculture to industrial came at Tuesday's regular monthly commission meeting.

The request was discussed at last month's county commission meeting, but the commissioners tabled the issue until Tuesday's meeting.

Commissioner George Nodland's motion to pass the rezoning request carried four conditions the Stark County Zoning Board attached to the request before forwarding it to the commission.

Those conditions are:

1. Great Northern must obtain all necessary state approvals, licenses and permits to operate the coal mine.

2. Great Northern agrees in writing to replace all water lost as a result of its mining operations.

3. Great Northern must build and maintain necessary access roads, which must be built to the satisfaction of the Stark County Commission.

4. Great Northern must work in concert with law enforcement and emergency responders to facilitate public safety.

Four representatives from three different organizations that are opposed to the proposed coal gasification project spoke to the commission prior to its vote on the rezoning request.

Nancy Eberts and Frank Hurt, members of Neighbors United, a group of concerned Stark County residents, were first on the agenda to speak.

"I can't begin to tell you how scary it is to think that a decision made by you men could effectively destroy everything we have worked for and our forefathers have worked for," Eberts said.

She is terrified the proposed gasification project is going to have many adverse effects on area residents.

"You are here to set an example and you are here to serve and protect the commons," Eberts said. "I'm begging you to put the environment and heritage before the almighty dollar."

She is also concerned about how this project would affect her daughter, who suffers from asthma.

"There's some things that money can't buy," Eberts said. "Our heritage and our children's future is one of those things."

Another concern Eberts voiced is whether a project like this impacts the area's agriculture.

"Agriculture is No. 1 in this state among all the industries," Eberts said. "If we run out of gas, there's ways we can get around, but if we run out of quality agricultural land, we run out of food and I'm willing to bet we're not going to live on coal alone."

Eberts refuses to believe the proposed plant doesn't pose health risks to those living near it.

"There's no such thing as clean coal technology, it is only on the horizon," Eberts said. "We don't feel like being lab rats."

Eberts and Hurt urged the commissioners to postpone their rezoning decision until Great Northern receives the required approvals from the state.

"Why not hold off until they prove all of these wonderful things they say are going to happen?" Hurt asked. "They should be getting the state approval first."

Hurt said he and Neighbors United want more data on the matter.

"We're not asking you to denounce it, we're simply asking you to get more information, more facts, before this moves forward," Hurt said. "You have to have the wisdom to slow this thing down and get all the answers we're looking for and you have to have the courage to stand up for Stark County residents and make Great Northern abide by your rules."

Although Great Northern agreed to replace water lost as a result of the project, Hurt remains concerned.

"Mr. (Richard) Voss says if it's their fault, they'll replace it, but do you know what that big 'if' means? If you win in court," Hurt said. "Cattle can't wait until a court case is over."

Hurt is also concerned with the effects that uranium would have in the region should the land contain harmful amounts of the substance.

"We're talking about some pretty serious consequences here to stirring up ground that contains radioactive substances," Hurt said. "Cancer, birth defects, contaminated aquifers - we don't know what might happen."

Earlier in the meeting, Voss, who is vice president of Great Northern Power Development, said there is not a significant amount of uranium in the area.

"If we do run into something, we'll work with the health department on taking care of it," Voss said.

Charmaine White Face, coordinator of "Defenders of the Black Hills," is also concerned about uranium. According to its Web site, this Rapid City-based organization is "a group of volunteers without racial or tribal boundaries working to ensure that the United States government upholds the Fort Laramie Treaties of 1851 and 1868."

"The problem comes when that insignificant amount (of uranium) that is in the coal is burned because then it can travel as microscopic particles in the air," White Face said.

Her group traveled to Dickinson fearing the proposed gasification project would create problems in South Dakota since the state is downwind.

"Your decision has a much bigger impact than just in Stark County," White Face said. "It doesn't stop at the North Dakota border."

Dennis Kost of Washburn, whom The Forum described as a critic of coal-fired power plants and their health effects, also expressed concern at the meeting. He is also a representative from The Children's Health Task Force of Bismarck.

"I see a lot of health effects that are directly related to industrial development," Kost said. "I believe that this project has the potential to be a real health...disaster."

He presented a number of photos that allegedly showed the effects of air pollution. He also urged the commission not to approve the rezoning request and to consider alternative energy sources.

"We're compromising the health of a whole generation of people here," Kost said.

Nodland, who was also a member of the county zoning board, felt the zoning board made a good decision in forwarding Great Northern's zoning request to the county commission.

He understands the concerns that were brought up during the meeting, but feels the commission should also approve the rezoning request.

"Our requirements as stated in our zoning ordinance are limited to zoning from agriculture industrial only and does not include all the other concerns of the people opposing the project," Nodland said. "These concerns need to be addressed by the state agencies whom have the expertise to review the applications and the various permits that are required of Great Northern Development."

He said the decision of whether or not the proposed gasification project causes any health effects is up to the State Health Department.

"I agree 100 percent with everything that you said and I had that concern myself, but it's their (the State Health Department) job to decide that," Nodland said.

He thinks the gasification project could be beneficial to the region.

"We are a dying community," Nodland said. "We need economic growth."

Commissioner Russ Hoff agreed with Nodland that this plant could bring valuable economic development.

In another matter, the commission invited representatives from Great Northern to recreate a presentation that was shown at a luncheon organized by the company this past December.

Because a quorum of county commissioners attended this gathering, it may be viewed as a violation of the open meetings law. The recreation of the presentation was intended to remedy the possible open meeting violation.

Voss recreated the presentation for the county commission on Tuesday.

"This is a relatively brief presentation that was a general overview of the project's status at that date," Voss said. "The intent of the meeting, of course, was to try to get elected officials and business leaders and those types of people to just give them a brief general update."

He showed the computer-generated presentation that was presented at the luncheon in December.

Voss said Great Northern had two similar public presentations, one in South Heart and one in Dickinson.