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Officials address water concerns

Fifth in a series SOUTH HEART -- Water is a valuable resource for everyone. Some residents here are concerned about how a $1.4 billion coal gasification plant proposed by Great Northern Power Development L.P. may affect their wells and springs. N...

Fifth in a series

SOUTH HEART -- Water is a valuable resource for everyone.

Some residents here are concerned about how a $1.4 billion coal gasification plant proposed by Great Northern Power Development L.P. may affect their wells and springs.

Neil and Laura Tangen and Frank and Lucy Hurt are two couples living south of town who are concerned about their water sources.

The Tangens' home is closest to one of three mining pits, while the Hurts' operation is near the plant site. The proposed plant would be located four miles south of town and two miles west.

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GNPD's recent change in strategy from constructing a coal-fired electric generating plant to a coal gasification project has not affected their feelings toward possible changes to residents' wells and other water sources.

In a press release about the change, Great Northern President Chuck Kerr stated there would be a "small environmental footprint, with minimal air emissions and very little impact on local water usage," but concerned residents want to know what little water impact means.

"What is little to them," Tangen asked. "What's little to them could be huge for us. If it comes out of the Southwest Pipeline there are people out here still waiting to get hooked up to get good water."

Water is a precious commodity for ranchers here, he added.

Great Northern Vice President of Power Development Richard Voss' information on water usage for the plant and mining area comes from comparisons and references to the Dakota Gasification plant in Beulah. The Beulah operation is a larger version of the proposed South Heart plant. Voss said the South Heart plant would use less than 10 percent of the water used at the Beulah plant.

"We're predicting to use about 250,000 gallons a minute at peak time for make-up water in the plant," Voss said. "That's an equivalent of about 400 acre feet per year, compared to 7,000 feet per year at Dakota Gas's facility."

What about wells?

Well water is another joint concern.

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Tangen's concerns about well water are for himself and others in the area. He wants to know not only how the wells will be affected, but how GNPD can ensure a way of returning any loss of well or other water.

"We need a guarantee that we won't be left out when it comes to having our water," Tangen said. "We don't want to pay for something like our water supply that's already on hand."

Hurt is worried because water resources are part of his livelihood, he said.

Voss said the average depth of mining would be about 70 feet. Although there are a variety of different wells in the South Heart area Voss uses one at 100 feet deep as an example.

"If the aquifer for a well is 100 feet down the groundwater at the top of it will drop about 2 ½ feet," Voss said. "Since groundwater runs in lenses through the earth there are different thicknesses. If an aquifer is 20 feet thick from bottom to top the 2 ½ feet drop down would make that 17 ½ feet thick instead."

For a well that is down 200 feet indications from the groundwater analysis and planning shows it would drop a little more than five feet from atop the aquifer, he added.

"We want to be able to measure a baseline so if a well has pumped 20 gallons a minute and after mining it only pumps 10 gallons we will replace the other 10 gallons."

Letters were sent out to those residents' whose wells in the area could be affected, but the Tangens said they never received a letter. The couple only knows about the letters after seeing neighbor Randy Kudrna's, which he received Nov. 20.

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"In the letter, it says anyone from within a mile should be contacted about getting their wells tested and we're a stones throw away from mining Pit 1," Tangen said. "Why didn't we get this letter?"

Voss said the process of completing well certification is ongoing and not everyone may have received a notice yet.

"If someone feels they have been left out they should contact us right away," he added.

Dennis Meschke with the Contex Energy Company has earlier stated the Tangens were not within the proposed plant, mine and one-mile project buffer area and legally he does not have to send any paperwork to them. Meschke has been working for Great Northern in obtaining surface land use and mine royalty agreements.

Laura Tangen said it's important that those who get these letters have their wells surveyed. Laura has made an effort to talk with as many people as she can in the community about the plant project.

"I think it's really important for our community to be aware of these things and not many are," she said of her discussions.

Voss said the hope is to submit the mine permit within the next month, which will include all water analyses.

"When we get that part done people will be notified and get further information," Voss said. "We will have meetings with well owners and affected landowners to explain the zone of influence."

With respect to plant water demands, Voss said GNPD is confident sufficient water within the area can be obtained without causing adverse impacts to local groundwater.

"In regards to wells around the plant site and mining area, we are working on a ground water monitoring and well certification programs, which are part of the mine permit application," Voss said. "This establishes the baseline of what wells are used, why they are used and what their outputs are. If we affect any of the wells we will replace both in quantity and quality of like or better water."

The replacement would come from either a water source within the site area or using the Southwest Pipeline, he added.

There are a number of water sources being analyzed, including drilling deep wells, tapping into the Southwest Pipeline and water from mine seams.

"When we do the mining process we have to de-water the mine seams and we hope to use that water," Voss said. "We also plan on recycling all of our water in the plant to be reused."

In contrast, wells in the mining area will be gone, Voss said.

"If there is a well in there that has, say, 50 gallons a minute being used by a rancher for his cattle, we'd supply him that water from another source which would either be another well or perhaps the Southwest Pipeline," Voss said.

The GNPD has entered into an agreement with design engineering firm Bartlett & West of Bismarck to do an analysis of the pipeline, he added.

Voss said the firm has done quite a bit of work with the SWPP and the study will reveal if one water source or the other is more economically feasible in the long run.

"One of the things we did with the Southwest Pipeline Project is having it built larger in hopes of more users, like the Richardton ethanol plant," Gov. John Hoeven said at a recent press conference in Dickinson. "These types of projects are part of the reason we oversized the pipeline because we wanted to encourage this kind of development."

Anytime you have a big user it helps the other users in the area with covering costs and bringing in more infrastructure, he added.

Southwest Water Authority Chief Executive Officer Mary Massad agrees with Hoeven. The SWA continues to expand and develop the pipeline and to this day is adding new users in rural areas in the region. Massad said at this point any use of the pipeline by GNPD is in the preliminary stages.

"We've had one meeting with them about it," Massad said. "We don't know at this point if it's a possibility. Our engineers are studying it. I don't have any details at this time on how it would exactly work."

Springing concerns

Spring water also is a concern.

"It's not only well water, because there are places we have surface springs to water livestock which is quicker than anything 80 feet deep," Hurt said.

Voss said to his knowledge there have not yet been any springs identified which would be affected by the mining, plant sites or buffer zone.

Geologist Ed Murphy with the North Dakota Geological Survey said springs are extremely variable and dependent upon past moisture and must be looked at very closely.

"Springs are perched above the water table," Murphy said. "A cursory review and screening of the area must be done to understand just how a spring could be affected."

(Next: Enviromental impacts are discussed.)

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