PHILIP | The prospect of drilling the deepest hole ever bored in South Dakota soil for a possible future nuclear waste storage site has raised the ire of Haakon County residents concerned about the future of their land, of their water and of their children.

Despite the project's clear connection to nuclear waste, Gov. Dennis Daugaard said the scientific and research experiment proposed for west-central South Dakota should in no way lead residents to believe he supports storing nuclear waste in the state.

Seeking a $35 million contract from the U.S. Department of Energy, Rapid City-based RESPEC, in partnership with South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, has conducted preliminary meetings with the Haakon County Commission to explain the project and gauge public support for the scientific experiment. More than 40 county residents showed up at the commission’s meeting in Philip on Tuesday, most to express their concerns about the plan.

As proposed, RESPEC, an engineering consulting firm formed in 1969 by six professors from the School of Mines, would drill a “gun-barrel straight” 8-inch borehole 3.2 miles into solid granite, just to see if it could be done.

“It’s a very unique project,” Todd Kenner, president and chief executive officer of RESPEC, said last week. “The aspects of the project make it one of a kind when you combine the depth of the borehole, the diameter of 8 inches, and the tolerances. They want this as straight as possible. This type of project has never been done."

It would be the deepest hole ever drilled in South Dakota, he said.

“There have been deeper boreholes drilled in the oil and gas arena, but not in granite and not with this depth, tolerance and diameter,” Kenner added.

Third strike

Although Kenner said RESPEC already had secured a five-year lease agreement with a private landowner for a 20-acre site 50 miles north of Philip, county and state permits and approvals would need to be finalized before the project could advance.

Two other prospective sites — one near Rugby, N.D., and another in Spink County, S.D. — were previously abandoned when local opposition formed to defeat the plans. In March, the proposal was denied in Pierce County, N.D.' due to vocal opposition.

The deep borehole project is designed to learn how to drill basement rock for nuclear waste storage. The second site considered  was from Rugby to Redfield and Tulare, S.D., where the Ohio-based Battelle Institute conducted a series of informational meetings last summer.

“There were three informational sessions, all to a packed house,” said Spink County Commissioner Cindy Schultz. “Most of the people were against it. There were a few for it, likely because the School of Mines was involved and they viewed it as an educational opportunity.”

But Schultz said she and her fellow commissioners, as well as dozens of local residents, shared concerns that a successful borehole test could lead to the eventual storage of nuclear waste in their backyard.

“Nobody wants it near our water, near our oceans,” said Schultz, who lives 22 miles southwest of Redfield in far northeastern South Dakota. “I honestly don’t know where they will find to put this nuclear waste. Meanwhile, they are making more of it.”

Spink County zoning ordinances required that proponents of the project formally request a special exemption to allow them to drill the borehole. But, Schultz said, that request never came.

“Rather than wait for the request for the special exception, we decided to draft a letter telling them the commission was opposed to it, noting they had every right to request the exemption,” she said. “But we thought they were wasting a lot of people’s time and we wanted to get it done. Late last summer, they accepted the letter and they left.”

On to Haakon County

Project proponents then headed to Philip, the county seat of Haakon County, which doesn’t have zoning laws outside municipalities, and began informal sessions in October with county commissioners to make them aware of the scope of the project and to attempt to gain local support.

“There have been a couple of meetings to fill us in on what they’re thinking,” Haakon County Commissioner Steve Clements said last week. “We asked them questions and they came back with answers to those questions, though we probably don’t know the right questions.”

At Tuesday’s commission meeting, Clements said more than 40 residents showed up to hear from RESPEC representatives and ask questions. When that ran on too long in a commission chambers that seats about a dozen people, both parties adjourned to an empty courtroom upstairs and continued the conversation for a couple of more hours, he said.

“Everybody was very respectful and nobody was unruly,” the commissioner said. “I think everybody is a little wiser and probably learned something from it.”

Following the initial discussions, Clements noted the Haakon County Commission had remained neutral on the issue and said that he favored bringing the proposed project to a public vote.

“I’d sign a petition to put it up to a vote of the people, and that’s the way most of the people there felt,” he said. “But I don’t think we want (nuclear waste) buried here in Haakon County.”

County resident Jennifer Jones, a mother of three who raises cattle with her husband, Jeff, a mile southeast of Midland, began online research days before Tuesday’s meeting after a college friend in Spink County alerted her to the planned borehole project. Jones spoke against the project at Tuesday’s session.

“This is important enough that someone needs to stand up and raise a few questions,” Jones said in a phone interview last week. “I’m not convinced it’s just for scientific research. But I worry about what is going to happen when you disturb the earth and drill that far."

She worries over the potential worst-case scenario.

“Contaminated aquifers? Radon gas leaking? They don’t know because it’s never been done,” she said.

Schultz said her primary concern remained whether the scientific and research experiment, if successful, would “open the door” to the eventual storage of the nation’s nuclear waste in South Dakota.

“Can we trust that what the federal government tells us is true?” she asked.

Governor’s stance

Asked recently about the project involving RESPEC, the Rapid City company that has grown to employ 250 professionals in 14 offices in a dozen states and Canada, as well as the state’s coveted School of Mines, Gov. Dennis Daugaard said he supported the scientific and research aspects of the venture.

“I do support the project,” Daugaard said, noting it would rely on South Dakota’s experience in deep underground research and the engineering expertise of a private company and the School of Mines. “And I am very familiar with what happened in North Dakota and Spink County, both of which met with local resistance."

Daugaard pointed to the experience in underground scientific research gained by the work at the Sanford Underground Research Facility at Lead. “I do see this as a natural extension of that underground research,” he said.

But when asked if he favored storage of nuclear waste in South Dakota, Daugaard was adamant that he did not.

“I want to make it very clear that even though South Dakota, by its willingness to allow such research, in no way should be seen as a repository for spent nuclear waste, because we’re not,” the governor said.

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources also is aware of the proposed project, and a spokesman said RESPEC had been supplied information in October that showed it could be required to gain permits and approvals for water rights, mining, air quality, solid waste, stormwater, and drilling fluids and fuel, as well as adhere to federal rules on spill prevention control and countermeasures.

Regulatory hurdles

Kenner, the RESPEC executive, said his company recognized the regulatory hurdles inherent in the deep borehole project and said that, even if everything went well, drilling likely would not occur until 2018 at the earliest.

First, the company would have to secure the DOE contract, expected to be awarded in January, then build public support on the local level, wade through the permitting process, develop drilling plans and actually do the drilling and research, he said. It would take at least seven months of continuous drilling to meet the goals of the project, Kenner said.

“Everyone wants to draw the conclusion that we drill this hole and the next step is storing nuclear waste,” he said. “But that’s not necessarily true."

He said the changes needed in state and federal laws to allow underground storage of nuclear wastes could take decades.

Kenner said knowledge of drilling and granite gained through the project could be applied across the globe.

“We’re not in the business of storing nuclear waste,” he concluded. “We’re in the business of research and science.”