The most challenging part of this is the social aspect….
—Andy Griffith, U.S. Department of Energy,
on the Deep Borehole Field Test, 2016.04.28.
We may not have had the Governor in Redfield for last night’s public meeting on the Deep Borehole Field Test, but we did have a governor:
Harvey Wollman, who, among other things, governed our state for half a year, offered perhaps the calmest and most reasoned comments from the floor… and certainly the most statesmanlike. He spoke of the strong emotions evident in his neighbors’ questions and arguments. He spoke of the understandable fear roused by anything remotely associated with the word nuclear. Wollman said he doesn’t have a problem with the science of the Borehole project. However, he said that arable land is precious, and that “just invading it with a pipeline upsets me.” To overcome that emotion, Wollman said Battelle has to help his neighbors understand this project, understand the need for research on nuclear waste disposal, and understand that this project poses no danger to their sacred (Harvey used that word) land:
“Please understand the mood of my Spink County people here. They are not crazy, they are not irrational, they’re just protective of this beautiful area, and they are very cautious about it becoming something they do not want it to become,” he said.
Wollman’s comments drew applause at the meeting, and [USDOE’s Andy] Griffith called them eloquent [Shannon Marvel, “Spink County Residents Express Concerns About Borehole Drilling Proposal,” Aberdeen American News, 2016.04.29].
Receiving equally vigorous applause was a woman who blamed the media for misinforming everyone about nuclear waste coming to Spink County, then said we should welcome this project because Redfield is dying. Redfield can’t recruit professionals, she said, only meth-heads who sponge off welfare. Applause.
Much of the rest of the two-hour-plus question-and-answer session had the experts from Battelle, the Department of Energy, and the School of Mines patiently repeating reasonable responses to people who came convinced that they couldn’t believe anything they heard anyway and who thus played Matlock or Erin Brockovich, mingling recitations of Web printouts with rapid-fire yes/no cross examinations, trying to box the witnesses into a lie.
Three key logical fallacies rose from the audience:
First, much nodding and affirmative rhubarb-in-the-suburbs greeted one woman who established the veracity of her opposition to the Borehole project by citing her status as a veteran and by noting the thickness of the stack of online articles she printed—I used up a whole printer cartridge! She read maybe a paragraph or two from those few dozen papers, then abandoned her rich paper-and-ink investment at her seat when she left. (When I glanced at the papers, I’m pretty sure a big chunk consisted of my comment section. Thank you for reading!)
Second, several members of the audience sought to paint the project leaders into a paradox. Opponents contended that it is impossible that anyone would ever drill this kind of deep borehole just for science, that Battelle and USDOE have to be doing it with an intent to place nuclear waste here. They then demanded that Battelle and DOE promise that they would do this project just for science. I’ll be generous and merely deem it tricky to say that the only way to prove one is not lying is to promise to do the impossible.
Third, the greatest rhetorical challenge of the evening was responding to opponents who said, “But how can you guarantee” that no one would ever bring nuclear waste to the Spink County Borehole site. Multiple times, the project backers explained the legal, regulatory, contractual, and natural factors that preclude the Department of Energy from placing nuclear waste in Spink County, and multiple times, folks in the audience basically dismissed those statements as meaningless. There’s no winning that argument.
“How are we going to stop them from coming in and putting in nuclear waste?” folks kept asking. USDOE’s Andy Griffith and Battelle’s Rod Osborne seemed to make the answer to that question pretty clear: the single best guarantee that the people of Redfield, Spink County, and South Dakota have against nuclear waste coming here against our will is our political will. The Office of Nuclear Energy has put on the record its consent-based siting policy. If no landowner will sign the five-year lease, if the county commission won’t grant the necessary zoning change and permit, if the people don’t want it, Battelle won’t drill. Even if Spink County permits the Borehole, the five-year contract will prohibit any nuclear activities and require that the hole is filled with cement and clay, and the only exception to that protection again depends on public support.
I understand the protectiveness of which Governor Wollman spoke. I love this state as much as he does, as much as Lana Greenfield does, as much as anyone else in the Spink County 4-H hall with us last night does. This land is sacred to me. (Why else would I spend an entire day writing about one plan to dig one hole in South Dakota bedrock?)
Also sacred to me is democracy. That’s where we find our guarantee. Instead of asking others to guarantee our government’s words, I recognize that we are our own best bulwark against government bullcrap. Our best response to the public servants backing the project is to say, “Thank you. We will take you at your words, and we will hold you to those words every day, forever. We will watch you. We will blog you. We will demand answers and action from you. And if you take any action we don’t want, we will protest and petition and vote and run you out of your offices to protect our sacred land.”
That social aspect of the project, the constant attention we must pay to public affairs to keep our government in line with our will, is harder than the geological and technological aspects of this remarkable and potentially useful engineering project… but no one said democracy is easy. We must overcome our mistrust of government by recalling that the government is us.
The Deep Borehole Field Test is not about putting nuclear waste in South Dakota. Batelle, Uncle Sam, and Governor Dennis Daugaard have told us so. We have their word. Our guarantee that they will keep their word is our democratic vigilance.