November 10, 2015

Beulah meeting will voice concerns on EPA regulations

By Daniel Arens

Beulah has been selected as one of four communities in the state to host a North Dakota Department of Health meeting regarding the Clean Power Plan, providing a prime opportunity for Mercer County residents to speak out about the impact the plan will have on their communities.
The importance of many people showing up at the meeting, which will be held in the Beulah Civic Center at 7 p.m. on November 12, was emphasized by numerous community and county leaders.
“As many people need to be there and support our industries as possible,” Wayne Hoffner, The Union Bank, said. Mercer County Commission Chairman Gary Murray echoed these sentiments.
“I would hope that enough people can paint the picture of how important this industry is to the county, the state, and, really, the nation,” Murray said.
The Department of Health is putting together a state plan that will meet the guidelines specified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in its Clean Power Plan. NDDoH officials are seeking input from North Dakotans on how this state plan should look, as well as providing further information for residents.
In its initial proposal for the Clean Power Plan, the EPA considered an 11 percent reduction in carbon emissions for the state of North Dakota. However, in the final plan the EPA approved, the 11 percent reduction was raised to a 45 percent reduction, an increase that North Dakota’s industry cannot meet within the specified timeframe without closing power plants.
When the EPA set its finalized plan, the agency allowed states to set their own individualized plans for carbon reduction, but the plan must still reach the target reductions set by the EPA. After a meeting with state officials and energy leaders, the EPA has allowed North Dakota three years to implement its own plan, although a rough draft is needed within the next year.
It is noteworthy that the other communities in which the NDDoH will hold public meetings are North Dakota’s larger communities of Williston, Bismarck, and Fargo. Mercer County State’s Attorney Jessica Binder said the decision to have a meeting in Beulah “really demonstrates how significant this is for Mercer County.”
The upcoming meeting will not address the Clean Power Plan per se, although information about the plan will undoubtedly be brought up. The purpose of the meeting is to gather input and information related to the state plan. If North Dakota fails to create a plan that meets EPA requirements within the designated timeframe, the state will fall under the Federal Plan, the actual national plan that is under direct supervision of the EPA.
The meeting will address to what extent a state plan should be directed by the Federal Plan and what the state should be responsible for, as well what actions should be taken to reach the 45 percent reduction rate, and how the Department of Health should pay for the costs.
In response to what they view as punitive and arbitrary action on the part of the EPA in quadrupling the carbon reduction percentage, many agencies and businesses in North Dakota are pursuing legal action against the Clean Power Plan, including Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem. Binder wrote a Declaration of Harm opposed to the plan, which the county commission unanimously approved. Industries in Mercer County are also taking action to oppose the “overreach” from the agency.
In her Declaration of Harm, Binder laid out the history of coal for the county.
“Coal allowed Mercer County to grow while watching other rural counties disintegrate. While other rural county communities became ghost towns, communities within Mercer County grew. Mercer County benefitted from significant tax contributions by the coal facilities while many other rural county governments struggled to operate.”
Binder said that, while she approaches things from a legal and financial position related to her work, she understands that it is “so much more than that.” Born and raised in Mercer County, Binder described the importance of extended families and multi-generational workers at the power plants, saying that these families would be devastated by plant closures or layoffs.
In her Declaration of Harm, Binder pointed to the significance of the plants to families, as well as the service the industries provide to the communities.
“Small business and local medical facilities have grown while serving the thriving community,” Binder said. “The employees and their families fulfill civic roles through local governing bodies. They volunteer for local fire and ambulance services. Their children fill the schools.”
Hazen Mayor Jerry Obenauer and the city commission signed a resolution to support the county actions taken against the EPA. Obenauer described the ripple effect, saying that not only would industry tax support to the cities be lessened, but the loss of jobs would lead to people leaving the community. In the face of foreclosures and rising costs for local governments to maintain even basic budgets, the residents would have to make up the cost, Obenauer explained.
“That will just devastate us,” Obenauer said, noting that it could lead to the worst economic downturn for the region since the Great Depression. He reiterated Binder’s discussion of the significance of the industry to families, warning that “there’s not a family or business that won’t be affect by this.”
Hoffner also spoke about the importance to the towns.
“As a businessman and a person in the community [of Hazen], I am scared, and you can quote me on that!” he said.
Murray said that the county population was about 6,500 around 1980, a number which has jumped to more than 10,000 since the power plants were built at that time.
The city of Hazen had a 2014 general fund of $1,691,000, of which more than $860,000 came from coal severance taxes. Likewise, the Mercer County 2014 budget of $4.2 million received $1.8 million from coal severance taxes and $1.5 million from coal conversion taxes. Furthermore, a loss of workers and families from the area due to plant closures would have a large impact on property taxes, the only other means the county has for raising revenue.

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