Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Pence seeks legal opinion on INL well project

Express Staff Writer

Donna Pence

The permitting process for a water-flow study at Idaho National Laboratory has been put on hold following a state legislator's request for a legal opinion by the Idaho attorney general.

Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, whose District 25 includes Blaine County, has asked Attorney General Lawrence Wasden for his opinion on an INL and U.S. Department of Energy proposal to inject bromide salts into nine wells at the eastern Idaho site.

A permit from Idaho Department of Water Resources is required any time something is injected into a well or a well's use is modified.

In the experiment, bromide salts—potassium, lithium, sodium bromides—would be used to track the flow of groundwater.

"The basalts and sediments comprising the Snake River Plain Aquifer result in highly irregular infiltration pathways," according to a written statement provided by the INL. "Understanding the way that fluids move through complex geologic systems will help researchers at INL and the DOE complex to improve numerical model predictions that are often used to design cleanup strategies. Deploying these technologies at the uncontaminated Vadose Zone Research Park will allow us to test and refine our data interpretation and modeling capabilities without influencing contaminant movement at a contaminated site."

Pence is concerned, however, that the study is a prelude to an experiment that would inject carbon dioxide into the basalt to see if lava rock would be a good place to store the gas. She is also questioning whether the experiments fall under the National Environmental Policy Act and require more environmental study.

"We are requesting your legal opinion whether this federal action of INL legally securing ... injection wells requires NEPA documentation," Pence's letter says.

The carbon sequestration partnership program under way at the INL involves mathematical calculations and does not include injection of CO2 into wells or the ground, said Travis McLing, geologic program manager for the Big Sky Partnership.

It, like the strontium sequestration study, is its own project, he said.

INL scientists are working in conjunction with Boise State University, Idaho State University and multiple other entities of the Big Sky Partnership. The partnership is one of many mandated by the Bush administration to find ways to deal with carbon dioxide—an emission released by power plants, cement manufacturers and other industries.

"The goal is to assess the potential of storage for carbon dioxide emissions ... to look at a region and determine what geological features can store CO2," McLing said.

"One of the main problems with (coal-fired power plants) is to figure out what to do with CO2," Pence said. "Greenhouse gases are a real limiting factor on coal-fired and coal gasification plants. We don't want it in our atmosphere, but ... do we want the possibility of those kinds of things occurring near our aquifer? I'm not sure we want to be a dumping ground if this turns out to be a viable project."

Although a pilot test for CO2 injection will take place next year in eastern Washington, McLing said, the INL's part in the project is to make volume calculations on paper as to the feasibility of storage 2,500 feet below land surface. Since CO2 at that depth is kept as a liquid by the earth's pressure, it wouldn't affect the Snake River Plain Aquifer, which is 300 to 1,000 feet below land surface.

"The deeper you go, the safer it is," he said.

McLing said the project's calculations will be turned over to the DOE by September.

The bromide salts well applications, in the meantime, will be put on hold pending an opinion by the AG's office.

"One of the duties of the attorney general is, by statute, to provide upon request to the members of the House and Senate legal opinions," said Bob Cooper, spokesman for the Attorney General's Office. "An attorney general opinion is advice. It's not binding. That's what the courts are for."

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