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Pierce County drilling moratorium blocks federal nuclear waste project

BISMARCK -- The Pierce County Commission has placed a moratorium on deep bore hole drilling, temporarily blocking a federal project to drill into the county’s crystalline rock basement in a nuclear waste disposal test.

The county enacted the moratorium Tuesday and said it could be lifted only if the county planning board and commission agree. It will hold a public meeting on the project at 9:30 a.m. Feb. 16 at the Dakota Farms Restaurant in Rugby, N.D.

No nuclear disposal is planned, but a 20-acre site south of Rugby has been identified as a good location to drill 16,000 feet down to determine if such crystalline rock is suitable for disposal. The state-owned land was picked by the Energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks, N.D., in a proposal to the federal Department of Energy last fall.

Pierce County Commission chairman Dave Migler said the moratorium is intended to slow things down until residents get more information.

“Hopefully we’ll get our questions answered and get the whole take on it for the public,” Migler said.

DOE awarded the $35 million grant to the Battelle Memorial Institute, with EERC as a partner, in early January. The idea is to study the deep rock — prevalent under much of the country — for stability, water permeability, geothermal qualities and seismic activity to learn whether it’s a safe candidate for long-term storage of spent nuclear fuels. There is currently no federal nuclear disposal program.

John Harju, representative of the EERC, presented the project to the Board of University and School Lands last week and was directed back to Pierce County to start on the local end.

Land board member Gov. Jack Dalrymple cautioned that the project has implications for all citizens and could end up in the Legislature.

Harju said Tuesday he’s frustrated that the project has resulted in a “large inflammatory dialogue” about nuclear waste disposal, when, in fact, the holes — there would a second one — would be plugged and abandoned at the project’s end.

“No one is requesting disposal of nuclear materials in the state or at this location. This is a science and engineering project, not a nuclear waste disposal project,” said Harju, adding that it’s a rare opportunity to examine rock between 4 billion and 6 billion years old, the oldest on the planet.

Harju said he’s not comfortable with the public relations bumble caused by DOE’s announcing it had awarded the project before giving his agency time to talk to the folks involved.

He said it was clear in EERC’s proposal that the Pierce County location was pending a lease from the land board and any necessary permits.

“We wanted to first visit with the local landowners and residents and understand their concerns. Instead, we’re dealing with people who already have an opinion skewed by small sound bites,” Harju said.

Harju will be at the public meeting, and Migler said others will be invited to round out what he hopes is a civil discourse.