Port: When environmentalists are bad for the environment

MINOTWe all want cheap energy. We also want safe and responsible energy development.Unfortunately, the extreme politics of environmental activists, and just plain old not-in-my-backyard parochialism, often stand in the way.We have two recent exam...


We all want cheap energy. We also want safe and responsible energy development.
Unfortunately, the extreme politics of environmental activists, and just plain old not-in-my-backyard parochialism, often stand in the way.
We have two recent examples from North Dakota.
First, let’s go to Rugby. The folks at the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center have been trying to organize a deep borehole drilling project near that community, but they’ve run into a tidal wave of NIMBY.
When the Pierce County Commission put the project on their agenda the public’s reaction was overwhelmingly hostile. “Based on mostly negative comments, applause and a show of hands against it, any formal land use application is probably dead on arrival in the county,” the Bismarck Tribune reported.
Why all the opposition to drilling a really, really deep hole? One goal of researchers is to better understand how radioactive waste from sources such as nuclear power plants can be safely disposed of.
But that term, “radioactive waste,” set a lot of people off. Which is too bad, because the furious opposition was misguided.
“To be clear, there is no radioactive material involved in this project,” UND President Ed Schafer wrote in an editorial backing the research.
Not only was there no waste involved in the EERC’s project, but none of that waste could be disposed of in North Dakota without significant amendment to state law.
What the NIMBY crowd in Pierce County was really opposing wasn’t radioactive waste so much as the gathering of knowledge. Knowledge which could be invaluable to the future of where we get our energy. Cheap, clean nuclear power could be a cornerstone of America’s energy portfolio in the future, but not until we solve the waste problem.
But we can’t solve that problem while researchers are in the thrall of myopic and ignorant public paranoia.
Now, let’s head out to McKenzie County in the oil patch, where IHD Solids Management hopes to become the first waste facility in the state to accept mildly radioactive byproducts from oil drilling.
And I do mean mild. A manager of the facility “said the level of radioactivity of the waste would be slightly above the radiation a granite countertop gives off and below the radioactivity level of phosphorus fertilizer,” Amy Dalrymple reported for Forum News Service.
This is a positive development. In years past, there have been problems related to the illegal dumping of these materials. You probably remember the headlines about radioactive filter socks being left on trailers and in abandoned buildings.
What contributed to the illegal dumping problem was North Dakota’s absurdly low threshold for radioactivity in waste disposed of in-state. After a lengthy process of review and public hearings the Department of Health raised the threshold and established a process through which facilities can accept the waste.
This means the oil industry may have better access to appropriate disposal facilities in the future.
I say “may” because certain extreme environmental groups are working on a legal challenge to the new rules.
And they’re trying to inflame public sentiment against the facilities with that scary “radioactive” term.
“People are really concerned if these landfills are going to go radioactive near them,” Don Morrison, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, told Dalrymple.
Morrison says his group has requested an Attorney General’s opinion regarding the process used to develop the rule, and may consider further action after that.
But you really have to wonder why they’re fighting this. Don’t we want responsible disposal of this waste?
I suspect what Morrison and his ilk really want is to stop oil development entirely, and see this issue as a handy roadblock they can throw in the way.
They’re trying to make the public fearful of progress in an industry they hate. But we can’t let NIMBY hysteria and aggressive political agendas stand in the way of progress.
Port is the founder of, a North Dakota political blog.

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