A plan to explore deep ancient rock in Pierce County for its potential to store nuclear waste hit a bumpy road if not a rock wall in its first introduction to state officials Thursday.

The State Board of University and School Lands heard from the Energy and Environmental Research Center at Grand Forks that its team was awarded $35 million by the federal Department of Energy to drill 16,000 feet down into crystalline rock to learn whether the rock could suitably store spent nuclear fuels.

John Harju, project liaison, said the bore hole is for study purposes only, no waste would be stored there and that such storage isn’t even yet legal under federal rules.

Harju said the bore hole would be an opportunity to analyze rock core that’s rarely ever been looked at for minerals or geothermal properties. The chance to go that deep, into the oldest rock on the planet, “may never present itself again,” Harju said.

The issue was presented to the land board because EERC is proposing to drill on 20 acres of state-owned land about 15 miles south of Rugby.

Pierce County commissioners were at the meeting and said they were startled to read about the project before anyone from EERC even came to the county.

Commissioner Duane Johnston said, if the issue had come up at a local zoning meeting, “half the county would have been there to say no.”

Commission chairman Dave Migler said it was tough to take calls from residents and not have much information to share.

“It’d be nice to be in the loop,” he said.

While there was no formal application on the table, land board members didn’t hesitate to weigh in with worries that a federal project could become a federal mandate.

“We’re not unused to having the federal government come in and push things down our throat,” said Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple said everyone in the state would have a possible interest and any decision may have to be very broad based.

“We might be talking a resolution by the Legislature,” he said.

Harju tried to insist, “It’s not about nuclear waste,” to which Stenehjem responded, “But it is.”

“We need to hold up until we figure out what the proper steps are if we want to keep working on this," Dalrymple said.

Harju said he’ll get to Pierce County to help people there understand the project, which he says is about science, not nuclear waste storage.

Duane Hawk, a member of the Pierce County Water Resource Board, said there needs to be much more communication.

“The people up there – let’s put it this way — they don’t always believe the government," he said.

In the end, it was far from clear how the EERC would proceed with getting approval to use public land for the project in Pierce County, or perhaps anywhere in the state.

Afterward, Harju said he was a little surprised by his reception.

“Plan B? We don’t have one. If the project is not able to proceed, the DOE will have to evaluate” alternatives, he said.

The five-year project was awarded to the Battelle Memorial Institute of Ohio, along with EERC and Schlumberger, a familiar drilling service company in the Bakken. The crystalline rock formation underlies much of the continent.

(Reach Lauren Donovan at 701-220-5511 or lauren@westriv.com.)

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