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August 10, 2011

North Dakota Sierrans Help Fight Proposed Coal Complex Near National Park


The Dacotah Chapter's organizing efforts to build local alliances and galvanize the public to speak out against a proposed new coal complex in South Heart, North Dakota, just outside Theodore Roosevelt National Park, paid dividends this summer.

"Our effort to turn out volunteers for a recent informal hearing in Dickinson for the South Heart coal mine and coal gasification plant was a rousing success," says North Dakota Sierra Club organizer Wayde Schafer. "Our goal was to get 65 of our supporters to attend. We had 81 show up, and 25 of them testified against the project. Of the roughly 100 attendees at the hearing, 76 were wearing the South Heart Coalition's yellow t-shirts—a pretty impressive sight."

The Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign logo was prominently emblazoned on many of the t-shirts. "A majority [of those in attendance] were sporting yellow t-shirts, signifying opposition," reported The Dickinson Press.

Turnout actually would likely have been even higher, Schafer says, if not for unusually wet weather which had delayed the planting season, causing many local farmer supporters to have to choose between getting their crop in and taking time off to attend the hearing.

The Dacotah Chapter has done mailings, phone banks, online action alerts, and helped turn people out for public meetings as part of its work with the South Heart Coalition, which includes the Dakota Resource Council, Neighbors United, National Parks Conservation Association, and Plains Justice.

"We have successfully kept this a local grassroots campaign," says Schafer. "We've worked very closely with Neighbors United, a local landowner group which came together around this issue, supporting their efforts and encouraging them to lead the opposition to the South Heart coal project."

Among those who spoke out at the informal hearing was Mary Hodell, a resident of South Heart and a founding member of Neighbors United. "We'll stand up and fight every step of the way until we hear they (the coal company) have gone back to Texas," she told the Administrative Law Judge. Hodell said the proposed coal complex will be detrimental to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which is located scarcely a dozen miles away, and hurt the South Heart farming community for decades, if not forever.

Steve Merrill, a retired soil scientist, said the mine will destroy an alluvial plain of the Heart River's south branch and ruin a subsurface water supply, reported The Bismarck Tribune. "It's a terrible sacrifice," he told the judge.

"I don't know much about coal mining… but I do know about cows and crops," testified South Heart resident Frank Hurt, as reported in The Dickinson Press. "Sure we can install pipelines and haul water but that costs money, and although they say they will return things to the way they are now, what they really mean is if our attorney can beat their attorney and our cows don't need water for three or four years, we'll be OK."

Hurt told the judge that by farming and ranching, local residents can produce multiple crops for many years which supply families with food, while coal is a one-time crop that produces little. "You guys sitting up here in suits, I bet you go out for a steak once in awhile. Well, you can gnaw on steak now, but can you gnaw on coal at night and be satisfied?"

Hurt's neighbor Gordon Krance also expressed concern that South Heart Coal LLC is withholding information from local residents. "I hear a lot of talk 'we'll replace the water, we'll fix the roads, we'll reclaim the land,' but not once have I heard someone from South Heart LLC stand up and say 'I will replace your health if you get cancer,'" Krance said. "We don't deserve to suffer health complications so a big coal company can make money."

The informal hearing was presided over by an Administrative Law Judge who will make a recommendation to the North Dakota Public Service Commission. The informal hearing process is being held open, possibly until the end of the year, until the coal company can correct nearly 400 technical deficiencies contained in the surface mining permit application.

"Once the informal hearing process is closed we will ask for a formal hearing," Schafer says. "We will continue to work with Neighbors United and our South Heart Coalition partners in the months to come to keep the issue before the public and eventually stop this destructive project."

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