State still quiet as local officials, residents near unified in opposition to Gregory County pump project
“We are concerned that South Dakota is not participating in this project,” The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wrote in a public comment, underscoring the radio silence of state agencies on the issue.
BURKE, S.D. — Soil stability, water quality, recreational impacts and the influx of hundreds of construction workers into Burke and other small towns in and around Gregory County are just some of the concerns residents and local officials raised in comments submitted to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regarding a proposed pumped storage project in the county.
Yet with one comment period remaining prior to the beginning of a critical study phase, no comments have emerged from state departments like Game Fish and Parks or the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources, though GFP is mentioned as a potential partner in some recreational and “species of interest” wildlife studies.
“We are concerned that South Dakota is not participating in this project,” The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wrote as part of its March 13 comments on the project’s study scope. “The South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources is the Clean Water Act regulatory authority in the project area and should be involved in every phase of this project.”
GFP Secretary Kevin Robling told Forum News Service last month that it was too early in the process for input from the department.
As of press time, DANR had not yet responded to a comment request.
The pumped storage project, a joint venture between Missouri River Energy Services and MidAmerican Energy, would consist of a 1,100-acre reservoir overlooking Lake Francis Case near the Platte-Winner bridge and a transmission line to bring generated energy into Charles Mix County, where it would be patched into regional and national grids.
The general idea is to pump water uphill using renewable energy when these variable sources are plentiful, then store that water for future hydropower generation during times of high energy demand.
The comment period regarding an initial study plan proposal earlier this year ended March 10, drawing in largely oppositional remarks from many of the key local organizations in the area.
The study plan was put together by Western Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, which maintains a formal relationship with Missouri River Energy Services.
Concerns from residents vary widely, but they begin at a very base level: the potentially unstable soil that will have to support the pressure generated by billions of gallons of water.
“I have been around this area for 70 years. Over the years, the topography has changed dramatically. Numerous slides throughout the ranch,” Jim Hogrefe, whose family owns the ranch that will make up part of the eastern side of the reservoir, wrote in a comment on Feb. 26. “I’ve seen fences disappear, quarter-mile fence hanging in the air where the ground it was in just slid away, free-flowing artesian wells quit flowing and established trails unusable.”
Further worries about the physical effects of the project include the effect of constant water movement up and downhill on water quality and soil deposition in the Missouri River.
Moving from the physical to the socioeconomic, many commenters mentioned the potential influx of construction workers as destabilizing for the rural area, especially if their time in the community and demand for housing is seasonal.
“Many have chosen to live, work, and visit this area because of, not despite, its rural and undeveloped character,” Citizens Against Missouri River Pumped Storage Projects, an interest group made up of local residents, wrote as part of its lengthy comments.
Beyond that, other socioeconomic concerns included the project’s impacts on recreational opportunities and the aesthetic qualities of the area, as well as the loss of some productive farmland.
The companies behind the project have maintained their desire to “ensure there is mutual benefit for landowners, local communities and the region as a whole,” according to a statement from Western Minnesota Municipal Power Agency.
Despite promises to the school boards in Burke and Platte-Geddes that the completion of the project could begin pumping millions of dollars into the districts by the end of the next decade, comments from both entities remained unconvinced: the Burke School District comes in “neutral” while Platte-Geddes is opposed.
“The level of concern, potential problems and strong opposition to the project make the district and school board opposed,” Platte-Geddes Superintendent Joel Bailey, representing the school board and district, wrote in a comment on March 10.
In county government, both the Gregory and Charles Mix county commissions expressed strong opposition.
“We also request that, prior to any approval of the proposed project, all studies undergo a full, independent review, with opportunity to respond, at the expense of the proponents,” the Gregory County Commission wrote in their comments, addressing worries that the studies would be “biased.”
As per federal processes, the applicant, in this case Western Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, is in charge of handling studies, though they could hire a third party for part or all of the dozens of proposed studies.
A revised study plan taking into account this last round of comments is scheduled to appear on or before April 9. A final comment period on the proposed studies will then last until April 24.
An in-person discussion in Platte is scheduled for April, with further details still to be decided, according to the project's website.
Go to https://ferc.gov/how-file-comment to see how to submit comments in a variety of ways.
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or email@example.com.