Drilling begins near Hyperion site Wells will monitor geology near proposed refinery By David Lias
Plain Talk The South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources is taking the first steps in developing a system to monitor the subsurface geology around the proposed site of the Hyperion Energy Center in Union County. Members of the Geological Survey began drilling test holes around the land that may someday be home to the refinery this week. â�?�?We currently arenâ�?�?t putting in any monitoring wells,â�? said Derric Iles, state geologist. â�?�?Weâ�?�?re just doing some test drilling which may ultimately lead to the installation of permanent ground monitoring sites. â�?�?Weâ�?�?re out there to further our understanding of the subsurface geology,â�? he said. â�?�?We know an awful lot about it already, and the drilling is to refine that knowledge, make sure that we know what we think we know, and based on that final understanding, we will choose the appropriate locations for the permanent ground monitoring sites.â�? The network of test wells will help state environmental officials eventually determine whether Hyperion has had an impact on the water quality in the region. â�?�?We will confidently be able to say, â�?�?yes, they have,â�?�? or â�?�?no, they havenâ�?�?t.â�?�? We will establish the permanent ground monitoring network so that we can ensure the safety of the ground water for the publicâ�?�?s use,â�? Iles said. â�?�?Thatâ�?�?s the whole purpose of this long exercise that weâ�?�?re going to start.â�? Drilling is scheduled to take place during the weeks of July 21, July 28 and Aug. 4 in the Lower-Vermillion-Missouri aquifer. Itâ�?�?s hard to predict just when the work will be completed. It will depend on a number of factors. Work had to stop July 22, for example, because of breakdown in the drilling equipment. A different type of drilling rig will be put to work by the geological survey during the week of Sept. 1. This equipment will be used to install permanent monitoring wells in surface alluvium, or sentiments, silts and clays, along Brule Creek if suitable conditions are found. Union County residents, in a June 3 referendum election, approved zoning changes needed for planning of the refinery to continue. The zoning approval is just the first step, however, of several technicalities facing this construction project. It likely will take several years for Hyperion to meet all required regulations and construct the massive refinery. Hyperion officials say â�?�?greenâ�? technology will be used in the proposed energy center, which it claims would be the worldâ�?�?s cleanest. The refinery would process 400,000 barrels of tar sands crude from Alberta into low-sulfur gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Supporters argued that tapping into reserves from our neighbor to the north would reduce the nationâ�?�?s dependence on Mideast oil and add badly needed refining capacity in the U.S., where the last all-new refinery was built in 1976. Iles said it is important to gather data about water and geology in the proposed refinery area now, long before any construction takes place. â�?�?We canâ�?�?t wait until it (construction) starts to gather the background water quality information,â�? he said. â�?�?We need to get out there ahead of them, and get the ambient background water quality established now, so that we have something to compare future water quality to.â�? Geological Survey Program staff will drill at least eight test holes in the coming weeks. â�?�?We will in all likelihood drill at another four to eight locations in addition to that,â�? Iles said. â�?�?But first we need to get underground utilities cleared at all of these sites â�?¦ and based on what we find will help dictate where the next set of drilling occurs. The information gained from each test hole helps us plan where the next one will be.â�? Permanent wells will be installed in the test holes in the next three to four weeks. â�?�?The reason we want those permanent wells in there is so we can monitor the water levels, which will tell us which way the ground water is moving,â�? he said, â�?�?and we want to be able to monitor the water quality, which will enable us to know whether the water quality is changing.â�? The wells will be deep enough to enter the Lower-Vermillion-Missouri aquifer, which lies beneath the Hyperion site. This aquifer covers quite a bit of territory underground. The city of Vermillion sits above it, and both The University of South Dakota and the city tap into it with wells for their water supply. Iles said Hyperionâ�?�?s design footprint above the aquifer is, alone, not cause for concern. â�?�?The aquifer is not near a land surface,â�? he said. â�?�?Itâ�?�?s buried and protected by other sentiments of low permeability, meaning the water cannot transmit through it very quickly, if at all. â�?�?The aquifer is protected, for a large part, from human activities on the land surface,â�? he said. The type of work being conducted in Union County is nothing new to the Geological Survey Program. It has a long history of mapping subsurface geology through drilling and well installation. The program also often maps surface geology and conducts geophysical logging, which is important in the interpretation of subsurface geology. The staff also measures water levels and conducts analysis of water chemistry. â�?�?This is old hat to us,â�? he said. â�?�?This is what we do.â�? The DENRâ�?�?s existing network of wells in South Dakota monitors water for the presence of common inorganics, including nitrates, trace metals, radionuclides, volatile organic compounds and pesticides. None of the drilling activity currently going on in Union County is taking place on private property. â�?�?We are doing all of our drilling in the right-of-ways along county and township roads,â�? Iles said. â�?�?Itâ�?�?s very readily accessible to us; we can plan our drilling program based on the road system and get in there and do our work.â�? Everything done by the Geological Survey Program involving Hyperion is open to the public. Citizens may access this information by logging on to the DENRâ�?�?s Web site www.state.sd.us/denr/hyperion.htm. Topics that already exist on this Web page include Hyperionâ�?�?s air quality permit, prevention of significant deterioration application, Hyperion correspondence, DENR correspondence and public correspondence. Iles said the goal of the Geological Survey Programâ�?�?s work is to help give some peace of mind to residents in the Union County area. â�?�?We will have an understanding of not only where the aquifer is under the ground, but in what direction the water is moving through that aquifer,â�? he said. â�?�?What we want to do is establish a minimum of three monitoring sites in that particular aquifer.â�? One monitoring well would be located in an area of the waterâ�?�?s flow before it reaches the Hyperion site. And least two sites would be located downgradient, or in the direction the water is moving from the Hyperion area. In that way, the DENR can compare water samples and more easily detect whether Hyperion has an effect on the aquifer.