Proposed drilling meets resistance in Spink County

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Farm Forum

REDFIELD, S.D. — Representatives from groups hoping to start a borehole drilling project in Spink County were met with opposition this week from residents who are unwilling to give the green light to the project without a guarantee that no nuclear waste would ever stored in the county.

The proposal would drill into the ground for research, including whether it would be feasible to store radioactive waste in granite deep beneath the earth’s surface.

Officials tried to assure residents at meetings in Redfield and Tulare this week that there is no intention of storing radioactive waste or materials in Spink County, but attendees still expressed concerns.

Battelle, a non-profit trust that specializes in the energy industry, and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City are working together to start the deep borehole drilling project, which is actually a federal Department of Energy undertaking. They want to drill in Spink County because of its buried rock formations.

“What we have decided to do is ask the residents of Spink County if they will welcome us there with our scientific experiment,” Battelle’s Media officer T. R. Masey said during an interview in Aberdeen before the meetings.

That might not happen, though.

Despite assurances, residents at the meetings were not sold. Former South Dakota Gov. Harvey Wollman, a Frankfort native, was one person who spoke up Thursday in Redfield.

“In South Dakota, we’ve been sort of the easy mark. I remember when I was growing up and was in the Army, we put in about 200 silos in this state full of nuclear missiles. And they put them here because you wave a little money in front of South Dakotans and they say it’s a good deal,” Wollman said.

“The experiment is to do some tests to see if we can drill a 5,000-meter hole straight up and down in granite,” Massey said during the American News interview. “We like the granite in Spink County. We haven’t pushed any buttons, and we haven’t pulled any triggers. We haven’t moved any way officially towards siting our project in Spink County.”

There is no intention of storing radioactive waste in Spink County due to state laws, federal regulations and mainly the fact that the county’s water supply is too close to the drilling site, he said.

“We’re not looking at this for nuclear waste disposal, we’re looking at this for an understanding of what granite looks like, how it behaves and what kind of properties it has at 16,000 feet. And also to develop the tools and methods of how to do this project,” said Rod Osborne, Battelle infrastructure and environment manager during an interview before the public meetings.

“What are they doing with the nuclear waste right now and how big of a problem is it?” Wollman asked representatives, including Andy Griffith, who is the associate deputy assistant secretary for fuel cycle technologies for the Department of Energy.

“When I was governor when I was 43 — 37 years ago — and this question would’ve come to me at that time, I would’ve been extremely careful about taking into consideration what my citizens thought of something that they truly didn’t understand. I don’t understand it either. But I think you have to explain why we want to go ahead with the project,” Wollman said.

“This is about nuclear disposal, that’s what this whole thing is about. This is what justifies you spending the money to dig the whole, and that’s what people are troubled about, they’re uneasy about it,” he said.

Wollman called Spink County land sacred, and noted that a pipeline is already being built through the area that many people don’t want. He said he doesn’t question the science behind the proposal, but that many people have legitimate questions.

“Please understand the mood of my Spink County people here. They are not crazy, they are not irrational, they’re just protective of this beautiful area, and they are very cautious about it becoming something they do not want it to become,” he said.

Wollman’s comments drew applause at the meeting, and Griffith called them eloquent.

The granite rock in Spink County, called the Benson block, is a prime place to conduct the experiments to determined if borehole drilling could be used to store radioactive waste in other areas of the country, Osbourne told the American News.

“This kind of rock is under a lot of parts in the United States. The fact that this is not fractured, it’s very stable and it’s been that way for more than a billion years makes it a great place to do the test. It doesn’t make it a great place to do nuclear waste disposal because of a lot of other reasons,” he said.

“One of the reasons we wanted to pick here is there’s not a lot of oil and gas exploration that might’ve cracked the rock that we want to do our experiment. That crystalline basement is at varying depths all over the United States. In Spink County, it’s only 1,000 feet deep. So we’re going to drill through what most people in the drilling business would see as dirt and sedimentary rock — not very hard. Other places you might drill down 5,000 or 6,000 feet before you get to that crystalline basement,” Masey said during the pre-meetings interview.

The experiment would involve drilling a straight hole 3.2 miles deep to take core samples from the granite rock. The granite rock is about 1,000 feet below the surface in Spink County, and teams would drill 15,000 feet into the granite rock for core samples and to see if drilling a very straight hole is possible.

The drilling process would take about 10 months to complete, according to Osbourne. The hole would be about the size of a manhole cover at the top and shrink to circle around 8 inches wide at the bottom. Between 50 and 60 workers would be on site during the drilling process, then would decrease once drilling is complete. At that time, the group would be compromised of mostly engineers, scientists and students conducting research.

According to a Battelle handout, 50 semi truck loads of material would be needed to construct a 150-foot tall drill rig that will send a drill bit down to make the hole.

Officials said the drilling would cost about $35 million. And they expect it would have a $1 million economic benefit to Spink County and $10 million statewide. That’s over a five-year span.

“We expect it to be solid granite, but we’re curious to find out if there are different layers of granite. Does it behave differently deeper under heat and pressure? Does that rock look different at only 2,000 feet? The same granite might behave this way, but at 3 miles it might be different,” Masey said during his interview with the American News.

During the same interview, Osborne said the temperature of the rock 16,000 feet below the surface is estimated to be about 300 degrees.

He told Spink County residents that after the project is finished and with the landowner’s consent, the hole would be filled with a cement and clay mixture.

“Are we doing an experiment to see if this is a viable alternative for a place to put nuclear waste? We are. That’s a thing that’s way in the future,” Masey said before the meetings.

However, that simply can’t be done in Spink County, he said.

“Your state law forbids it. Federal regulations say that the Dakota Aquifer is right there, so that’s out. Landowners don’t want it, and your governor has already talked to the secretary of energy and said I support it as long as it’s not about nuclear waste disposal, and the secretary of energy said, ‘Good, support it, it’s not,'” Masey said.

But Spink County residents expressed a distrust of the government, especially the feds.

Kristie Binger owns and farms land near Tulare.

“You cannot guarantee that everything is going to go perfectly and that nothing might happen. Hopefully, if you end up doing it, which I don’t want you to, but what happens then when we’re all in trouble because this is a farming community?” she asked.

Binger cited concerns about what will happen if the research finds Spink County suitable as a nuclear waste disposal site.

Tulare resident Deb Shultz asked Griffith if there is a way to guarantee that no nuclear waste will be disposed in the state.

“If the department of energy really, truly does not intend to dump nuclear waste in South Dakota as the final result of this test project, are they willing to sign a legally binding agreement that they would not site any nuclear waste in our state ever?” she asked.

Griffith said he would sign such a document, but that the chances of that happening are slim due to government restrictions in place to ensure future business and government endeavors are not impeded by past contracts or laws.

Stephanie Steinke of Rugby, N.D., attended both Spink County meetings to see how Battelle and federal government officials communicated with local residents. She said her hometown of Rugby was previously considered as a site.

Osbourne said plans about drilling near Rugby were not met with open arms due to the “rumor mill” that propagated wrong information about what the project entailed.

“Rugby had no knowledge of it (before a news release was issued in January),” Steinke said.

It was the Department of Energy’s news release — not the rumor mill — that made people suspicious, she said.

As of Thursday night, more than 60 Spink County residents had signed a petition stating they are against the borehole drilling experiment.

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• The drilling process would take about 10 months to complete. The hole would be about the size of a manhole cover at the top and shrink to circle around 8 inches wide at the bottom.

• About 50 semi truck loads of material would be needed to construct a 150-foot tall drill rig that will send a drill bit down to make the hole.

• Officials said the drilling would cost about $35 million. And they expect it would have a $1 million economic benefit to Spink County and $10 million statewide. That’s over a five-year span.

Source: Battelle officials and information