Bill amendments proposed

Alliance wants more local control in nuclear waste rules

File photo Rebecca Leier with North Dakota Community Alliance speaks about proposed legislation on high level radioactive waste, at the Elmer Jesme Conference of Counties meeting in Minot last September. Listening, from left, are Pierce County commissioners Mike Brossart, David Migler and Terry Hoffert.

RUGBY – A citizens group says residents deserve a stronger voice in determining the storage of nuclear waste in their backyards than exists in a bill before the North Dakota Senate.

The North Dakota Community Alliance supports state permitting rules for studying or storing high-level radioactive waste but is advocating for fixes to the procedures in Senate Bill 2037, a bill developed by a legislative committee during the interim.

“We believe there are numerous issues with the bill as it is currently written,” the alliance stated in a news release. “We have been working to add amendments to the bill to make sure that there is stronger notification for landowners, counties, and nearby cities; to ensure bonding and permitting fees are adequate and in line with what other states are charging; to ensure that local jurisdictions are consulted early in the process and involved in the planning and permitting as much as possible.”

The potential for a high-level radioactive waste storage, disposal or experimental site gained attention in 2016 when the U.S. Department of Energy proposed drilling near Rugby to see whether deep boreholes into granite bedrock could store radioactive waste. The unpopulated rural area, good transportation links and stable crystalline granite geology were all cited as reasons why southern Pierce County was chosen.

“If that test would have been done, and the site was found to be successful and the technology viable, we all worried about the future of the area and the possibility of eminent domain. We began working to make sure North Dakota has a good policy in place to protect our land and water, provide ample notification to landowners, counties and affected cities, and to make sure it is in line with what other states are doing on the issue,” said Rebecca Leier, a Pierce County landowner, in the release.

Many landowners take issue with a section of SB 2037 that says, “A county zoning regulation may not prohibit a high-level radioactive waste facility permitted by the commission, but may regulate the size, scope, and location of a facility.”

“This is exactly what made everyone so upset in 2016,” said Pierce County resident Stephanie Steinke in the release. “Local residents didn’t have the opportunity to discuss the future of their area’s development. Now we get the choice of how big and where, but not about getting the site. The Industrial Commission decides that. Many of these small towns have been engaged in rural development plans and Main Street Initiatives to spark rural growth. We want a seat at the table and to help decide our economic futures.”

The U.S. Department of Energy has previously backed a plan of “Consent Based Siting” for hot button things like this, she said.

“We invite North Dakota to do the same – adopt consent-based siting and engage with the local population right away, to build trust and gain consent for nuclear waste sites,” Steinke said. “Ideally, a county would submit a letter of support with the permit, just like many other agencies submitted letters with the 2015-2016 project.”

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee took testimony on the bill Jan. 4 and is to meet again today to discuss proposed amendments. As written, SB 2037 gives authority to the Industrial Commission for permitting, hearings and bonding when the North Dakota Legislature is not in session. The bill also provides the state geologist with authority to act on behalf of the Industrial Commission and state to enact many of the policies in the bill and enter agreements with the federal government for high-level waste storage.

The alliance met last Friday with the state geologist to discuss amendments being prepared for the committee.

“Our primary concern is legislative oversight,” Leier said Tuesday. “We would like for the state Legislature to make the decisions regarding high level radioactive waste.”

In light of the reclassification of high level radioactive waste now occurring at the federal level, the alliance also feels strongly the bill’s terms and titles should reflect measurable classifications of high level radioactive waste because those definitions impact who is qualified to haul the waste.

With respect to local involvement, the alliance is advocating notification within 30 miles of a proposed site 60 days before a permit is approved and requiring a letter of support from the county.

Leier said North Dakota has much at stake if disposal of high level radioactive waste becomes an industry in the state.

“There’s so many great things happening in the state of North Dakota,” she said. “We want to be known for lots of things, from being a bread basket to an energy resource to a legendary state destination to travel to. There’s great things happening in North Dakota. We don’t want to be branded as a high level radioactive waste site.”