Bore hole test near Philip, S.D. worries residents |

Bore hole test near Philip, S.D. worries residents

Boreholes are used in many industries to test the ground for specific purposes. Some residents of Haakon County, South Dakota, are concerned about what the real purpose of a proposed borehole in that area might be. iStock photo.
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

Residents opposed to a proposed testing site near Philip, South Dakota, say there are too many unanswered questions and no guarantees. The proposal is to drill an 8-inch-diameter hole to a depth of three miles, and then a second 17-inch-diameter hole to the same depth. The first hole is basically to see if it can be done, the second would be a study on placing canisters in the well. The 17-inch-diameter is the width needed to sink casks, that could be used to house high-level radioactive waste in granite bedrock.

In an article earlier this month, TSLN shared the educational and financial picture behind plans that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and RESPEC, a Rapid City engineering company, have for a proposed plan for a deep borehole field test (DBFT) in Haakon County (

While supporters and the engineering team have tried to convince residents that it is only a test, and there is no radioactive waste involved and never will be, opposition for the DBFT is growing.

“I’m all for the research, but successful research is an in for the next step,” Shad Finn, producer and Haakan County resident points out. “They [RESPEC] only hold the contract for five years, the way I understand it.”

“We haven’t had a single DOE representative attend the meetings. Only RESPEC officials, and they can’t answer all the questions we have.”Jen Jones, Midland, S.D., resident and producer

According to RESPEC, the five-year contract covers the first hole, and upon successful completion, a second five-year contract will be offered for the second hole.

“So in 11 years, they [DOE] come back?,” Finn asks. “There are just not enough answered questions.”

The questions keep adding up, and the meetings RESPEC has held around the county have lacked participation from DOE.

“We haven’t had a single DOE representative attend the meetings,” Jen Jones, Midland, S.D. resident and producer, said. “Only RESPEC officials, and they can’t answer all the questions we have.”

At the meetings, RESPEC primarily discussed just the five-year project, according to Jones. But the lengthy Request for Proposal includes a lot of pieces that could leave the door open for future use and testing, opponents say.

For example: “The terms of use for the drill site (e.g., lease, easement, license, or permit, etc.) must include a provision that allows the US Government, at its sole discretion, to continue to use the site for authorized purposes under the contract for the duration of the contract’s maximum period of performance (five years), plus an option to be exercised at the sole discretion of the Government, to use the site for up to an additional period of five years after completion of the contract’s period of performance. This option must (1) give the Government and its contractors the right to further test, drill and/or improve the characterization deep borehole and to drill one or more additional deep borehole(s) of differing sizes and configurations on the site for additional research purposes; (2) include the monthly and the full cost/price to the Government for using the site for the additional five-year period; and (3) must be transferrable to a bona fide third party (i.e., another DOE contractor) that would use the site for the activities specified in (1) above. The inclusion of this option does not obligate the Government to exercise the option.”

Jones and others opposing the testing have done their research. While the RESPEC engineers are claiming that the DBFT does not put South Dakota at risk for becoming a nuclear waste dump, and that the research will be taken and used elsewhere, Jones found evidence that may counter that claim.

“The U.S. Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board (NWTRB) in a January 2016 report, indicates that data from one site may not be able to be applied to another site. This brings doubt that DOE would go somewhere else if Haakon County’s geology proves favorable for being able to dispose of nuclear waste in a deep borehole,” Jones said.

Haakon county resident and producer Jeri Fosheim agrees that the messages and RESPEC talking points from the meetings just don’t add up.

“Why would they put all the money into this? It’s called being fiscally responsible,” Fosheim says. “Why would they waste the money on a spot they don’t plan to use?”

Lack of government trust fuels the DBFT opposition. “How many times have we seen the swipe of a pen change everything,” Jones says. “Look at Yucca Mountain.”

Yucca Mountain in Nevada, approximately 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, was a testing site in the process of becoming a nuclear waste repository, when the Obama administration shut it down in 2010. Discussion of reviving the project, at the cost of $1.66 billion, is back on the table, according to state reports, but even the state of Nevada is putting up a fight over sight suitability, the disposal concept, and groundwater and transportation concerns.

President Trump’s administration’s stance on nuclear waste repositories is still not clear, but research is obviously in the works. Proponents in Congress have indicated they want to push ahead with the Yucca Mountain project. During his confirmation hearing in January, DOE secretary Rick Perry did not say he supported the project, but he did leave the possibility open.

Senate appropriators have included language in spending legislation for DOE to initiate a pilot project for consolidating nuclear waste at an interim storage site determined through “a consent-based process.” By definition, it would seem that an interim storage would eventually have to be moved to permanent housing, which is what the DBFT is ultimately looking at.

“This is a Department of Energy project, funded by Department of Energy, to solve Department of Energy’s problem to find a permanent disposal solution for nuclear waste,” Jones said. “I know research needs to be done in order for DOE to find a solution to the nuclear waste problem, but why not use a salt mined geologic repository that is already proven to work, like WIPP (Water Isolation Pilot Plant) in Carlsbad, New Mexico,” Jones said.

But WIPP is another reason residents may have reason to be concerned. Just over three years ago, a drum of radioactive material burst underground, shutting WIPP down. While officials just last month announced plans to begin accepting shipments of nuclear waste from storage sites around the country in April, the possibilities for accidents are endless, and could devastate an agricultural rich community.

“What happens if [a cask] breaks or leaks on the way down?” Jones asks. “How do they test for that?”

The $36 million project is proposed for a 20-acre plot of private land, which, according to Finn, means they really don’t need approval from the public, although the support from the urban community seems to be there. “I’m shocked at the support they have,” Finn says.

“There’s a reason they are in rural areas,” Jones says. “We have lower income; we have lower population; and we do not have as much infrastructure.”

Along with RESPEC, DOE has proposals out with three other companies, all in rural areas: one in Texas and two in New Mexico.

Marion Hansen, a Philip resident, and retired professor with the South Dakota School of Mines, said the focus for the DBFT is developing the instrumentation and procedures to acquire the data, not the data itself. “This is a research site only. The instrumentation and testing methods will be needed for the repository holes, wherever they are located (not in South Dakota),” he says.

“If the test is successful, [DOE] will go somewhere where they are invited,” Hansen said, in the first TSLN article. “If there was any chance of any nuclear waste coming to South Dakota, I would be totally against this,” he said.

Phase one of the proposal, which started in January, includes five months of informing and gaining “consent” from the public. The next phase is permitting and zoning. In the end, only one of the sites will have a contract and opponents are hoping it’s not here.

Jones refers to the site as the guinea pig project, and opponents contend that they are not ruling out the possibility that the DOE has bigger plans for whichever site wins the contract.

In a 2013 Strategy for the Management and Disposal of Used Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste, the Administration describes this strategy on consent-based siting, Jones says. “In practical terms, this means encouraging communities to volunteer to be considered to host a nuclear waste management facility while also allowing for the waste management organization to approach communities it believes can meet the siting requirements,” the strategy reads.

“This is not just a one-way street for communities to approach DOE for siting a nuclear waste facility. If DOE finds a suitable place for disposing of nuclear waste, they could very well approach that community,” Jones says. “This is a contest we don’t want to win.”

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