- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 1, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Pierce County commissioners on Tuesday voted to formally oppose a proposed federal project that some area residents fear would be a step toward burying nuclear waste in northern North Dakota.

The county’s action likely spells the end of the proposed project in the state, which the U.S. Department of Energy had eyed because North Dakota is not prone to earthquakes.

University of North Dakota researchers are part of the $80 million Energy Department project to determine whether deep rock is suitable for nuclear waste disposal. They want to drill test holes on state-owned land near Rugby that currently is leased for cattle grazing.

Researchers and federal officials have said repeatedly that no actual nuclear waste would be involved, but many residents and officials remain skeptical about the future of the proposed site. County leaders on Tuesday voted to craft a formal letter of opposition and to also work on a permanent ban on drilling holes for such projects that won’t affect other drilling, such as for oil or water.

Project opponents last month submitted petitions to the county with more than 2,000 signatures in support of a permanent ban.

“This is something we’ve got to work on with our state’s attorney,” Commissioner Duane Johnston said. “It will be done in the next month. This project is not wanted in Pierce County.”

Researchers with UND’s Energy and Environmental Research Center are thankful Pierce County considered the project and will be consulting with their partners on their options, said John Harju, EERC’s vice president for strategic partnerships.

Harju stopped short of saying the project is dead in North Dakota, but said, “I think all of us are very respectful of self-determination. It’s something that localities need to be able to have.”

Energy Department spokesman Bartlett Jackson has said options for alternative locations would be explored if the Rugby site isn’t available.

Had the county given its blessing to the project, researchers still would have needed permission from the state Board of University and School Lands to gain access to the surface of the site, and a permit from the state Department of Mineral Resources to drill below the surface.

State land board officials in January had expressed apprehension about the proposed project and indicated they were inclined to defer to the county’s wishes.

Land board members “were very clear they wouldn’t approve a surface agreement without local support,” state Land Commissioner Lance Gaebe said Tuesday.

“Even though it was emphasized emphatically by representatives of the EERC that this particular project would not involve any (nuclear waste) storage, certainly the investigation of the capability to do so is the first step,” he said.


Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake

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