Borehole drilling hits grassroots opposition

There’s an issue rising to the surface in New Mexico, over some boreholes the Department of Energy wants to drill. A lot of people in some very rural areas are saying no.

It pertains to nuclear energy and the radioactive waste it creates. New Mexico is at the forefront of this waste-disposal issue, with our very own Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP—the only underground repository for nuclear waste in the nation—located just southeast of Carlsbad. Of course it was sold as perfectly safe, but in 2014 we found out that, where humans are involved, there’s always a risk. A container was punctured, radiation escaped the underground facility, and about a dozen above-ground workers were exposed to radiation.

Another possible approach that’s been gaining traction in the industry is to store the waste about 3 miles underground. The radioactive waste could be lowered into boreholes, which would then be sealed and secured for the next 10,000 years or so.

The DOE is exploring this as we speak—and is looking at eastern and southern New Mexico as good places to drill the boreholes. The DOE, through some drilling contracts, is seeking to drill test boreholes to determine the feasibility of this new approach to nuclear waste disposal.

Eastern New Mexico, and specifically Harding, Quay and Union counties, are considered geologically ideal for this research, and since there aren’t a lot of people living in this region, I suspect the DOE figured the opposition wouldn’t be nearly as strong.

But the opposition in this region is loud and determined. All three of these counties’ governing commissions have passed resolutions opposing the borehole “research,” as have area water conservation districts and the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association—and at least one outspoken state lawmaker, Republican Sen. Pat Woods, who represents the area. Their concerns are for the area’s water supplies—including the Canadian River Basin and the Ogallala Aquifer—and that unanticipated accidents could occur (see WIPP reference above). Opponents also see such the project as a threat to property values and agricultural production, and they don’t want trucks with hazardous waste traveling their roadways.

The expressed purpose of the borehole test drilling is to collect data about the underground rock formations and water reservoirs to determine whether this disposal method would be do-able. The DOE has hired Atlanta-based Enercon and Dosecc Exploration Services of Salt Lake City to do the testing on land that’s southwest of Nara Visa, in northern Quay County, just a few miles from Union and Harding counties and the Texas state line.

It’s one of the most sparsely populated areas in New Mexico, which makes the numbers turning out in opposition all the more impressive. Thomas Garcia of the Quay County Sun reported that, at a commission meeting in early April, more than 150 people turned out to express their opposition. And Cydni Wyatt reported in the Harding County Roundup—a paper produced by a Mosquero High School class to keep locals informed—wrote that 70-plus people turned out for an informational meeting in Roy, also in early April.

“The meeting ended in a show of hands,” Wyatt wrote in the Roundup. “No meeting attendee raised their hand in support of the project.”

In a town of 234 people, in a county of about 695 people (2010 census data), that’s quite a turnout.

This grassroots opposition is clearly being heard. The Quay County Commission and the Logan Municipal Schools district each initially supported the borehole project, until they heard from their constituents. They’ve since rescinded their support and are now on record opposing the project.

Meanwhile, a similar project is being considered in Otero County, where opposition is taking hold as well. As of this writing, the chair of the Otero County Commission, Janet White, has proposed a resolution opposing the boreholes, even if they are just for testing. And in other states, including communities in the Texas Panhandle and in South Dakota, there’s resistance as well.

Under the Obama administration, DOE officials said the borehole projects needed community support to move forward; a lack of such support killed one proposed project in Spink County, South Dakota. Proponents are quick to point out that no radioactive waste will be deposited at the locations where the testing occurs, but no one appears to be buying that. After all, why would they be test-drilling boreholes in those areas if they weren’t interested in those areas for the permanent disposal sites?

For now, it seems the people are being heard—at least by their local government representatives. The question is, under our new president’s administration, is the DOE going to listen? Time will tell.

Tom McDonald is editor and founder of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and owner-manager of Gazette Media Services. He can be reached at tmcdonald@gazettemediaservices.com.