USD students: Hyperion is not sustainable

The proposed Hyperion oil refinery proposed to be constructed not far from Vermillion in Union County is not a sustainable project.

That is the conclusion of University of South Dakota students who addressed the Vermillion City Council at its noon meeting Monday.

The University of South Dakota IDEA 410 class: Wall Street & Ethics – Do Social Justice, Community, and Sustainability Cost Too Much, researched various aspects of the Hyperion project. The study addresses issues surrounding oil, energy, water, health, and the environment to determine whether the proposed project is, or is not, sustainable in the long run.

This research was performed in teams, each focusing on and applying a different criterion from Jared Diamond's book Collapse. Diamond believes that societies can be determined to be sustainable, or not, by applying five criteria to specific circumstances. These criteria are: environmental damage, climate change, loss of friendly contacts, rise of hostile contacts, and political, economic, social and cultural setting.

The students told aldermen that only the final criteria – political, economic, social and cultural setting –  could be deemed sustainable.

The students noted that the Hyperion project would use 9 to 12 million gallons of water and day in the refining process. They also cited information credited to Derrick Iles, state geologist for the South Dakota Department of Natural Resources, who has stated that the biggest concern is not the consumption of groundwater but possible pollution.

The students also concluded that pollution from the refinery would likely have detrimental effects on nearby land because of contamination.

Hyperion has proposed to have nearly no external emissions because of internal combustion chambers.  Although Hyperion has made these claims on their Web site, they are still unable to meet the standards of the proposed state air permit, the students told aldermen Monday, adding that Hyperion claims the refinery will produce roughly one third of the emissions of the Flint Hill refinery in Minnesota, while producing around 40 percent more oil per day, but still not meet state and federal pollution standards.

The students noted that corn production is a predominant economic activity in Union County and the surrounding area, and the Hyperion refinery could have a significant negative effect on corn growth. The risks of gaining another oil refinery in the United States, and more importantly in Union County, may outweigh the benefit, the students concluded through their research, noting that the environmentally responsible decision pertaining to land around Hyperion would be to continue with existing practices instead of endangering them with heavy industry.

The university students told the city council that the proposed Hyperion project has the potential to change the air quality of the immediate area as well as distant areas within the wind patterns surrounding Union County. It is estimated that the refinery will emit 19.6 million tons of pollutants annually. The USD students noted in their presentation that some individuals, including Gov. Mike Rounds, argue the emissions from this plant will only be 32 percent of what is currently emitted from Sioux Falls.

The class members' research notes that some Hyperion representatives and people in support of the refinery have claimed that due to the great air quality that currently exists in that region, most pollutants emitted from the proposed site will disappear into the atmosphere over time.

Research has shown that this is a misconception and that the pollutants being produced by a refinery will fall from the air and settle on the farmland around the region of Union County, according to the students' presentation. The USD class also presented research findings to the council that concludes that pollutants emitted by the refinery will continue to linger in the air for years.

Students learned that many people who live in the surrounding area of the proposed site and who are in favor of the refinery do not believe the proposed project will affect their day to day lives. However, the USD student's research concludes that emissions released into the air by the refinery will travel in the air by wind currents and have the potential to leave lasting effects on the farmland and quality of life of the in the area.

The student researchers concluded that the refinery would emit too much pollution into the atmosphere and the creates enough ecological issues in the Boreal Forests of Canada, where the oil that will be refined is contained in tar sands, to make it a worthwhile long term energy solution.

Students noted that if future technology would allow oil companies to harvest bitumen from the Boreal Forest in a less harmful manner, then the project could be sustainable for a longer period of time than currently projected.

One of the students involved in the research conducted a survey of individuals living in the area of the proposed refinery, and found that the community is equally for and against Hyperion, and that  some people are undecided.  Pollution is the major concern for members that are opposed and undecided about the issue, and growth is the major concern for supporters. 

The survey revealed that many people feel that Hyperion is not telling the truth about pollution rates, however, those supporting the project think that the plant will be green and have almost no change to the air quality.  When survey participants were asked what has to happen for them to change their stance, many of the members would change if there was too much pollution or alternative energy companies had interest in the location. Surprisingly, many people said they will not change their mind regardless of any changes.

The people surveyed consisted on average of older men with income around $50,000 living both in rural and in-town Vermillion.  About 20 percent of members surveyed own or owned a business at one point in time.  Of the people surveyed, on average they felt they had above average knowledge about the Hyperion project.

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