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Navigating the business-citizen interest clash in South Dakota

At the core of every new business project in the state, whether it’s a pipeline or a meatpacking plant, are people working to make them happen. Sometimes, citizen groups stand in opposition, with concerns about the impact of business growth and development.

There’s controversy in Sioux Falls over Wholestone Food’s proposal to build a new meatpacking plant in the city. The $500 million dollar plant is the target of an opposition group called Citizens for a Sustainable Sioux Falls. It got signatures for a ballot measure asking residents to stop the development.

The proposal does have supporters.

Lorin Pankratz is the treasurer for Sioux Falls Open for Business. It’s a group that supports local business interests, including the proposed plant.

“They followed the rules and now somebody comes along and says, ‘well we don’t want that business here so were going to try and stop it.’ From our perspective, they followed the rules, they did what they were supposed to do," Pankratz said. "And from a broader perspective – this could be any business.”

Pankratz said the ballot measure can send a message.

“People that are looking to bring business or expand an existing business here they’re watching this because what if this happens to them? So, it’s got a stifling effect on economic development if that’s what citizen activist groups or people with money want to do,” Pankratz said.

He said those leading the opposition to the new plant are working out of personal interest.

“Their notion is not a business perspective, it’s a personal perspective," Pankratz said. "They started out right away saying ‘do you want another Smithfield? Smithfield smells.’ Because it’s maybe too close to where their building their big house. That’s the bottom line.”

Citizen opposition groups often focus on environmental concerns or worries that new businesses won’t support a balanced, sustainable economy. The opposition to the proposed plant in Sioux Falls focuses on wastewater treatment, odor, traffic and the impact on future development.

On the other side of the state in a small Rapid City office, the Black Hills Clean Water Alliance works to halt mining developments in the region. That includes a proposed uranium development in Fall River County.

The effort is Powertech’s Dewey-Burdock project, which would be located northwest of Edgemont near the Wyoming state line.

Dewey-Burdock would utilize “in-situ” mining, a process similar to fracking where water is pumped underground to dissolve uranium deposits.

Lilias Jarding is executive director of the alliance. She said mining has done more harm than good for the area.

“It’s left a number of creeks in the Black Hills contaminated all the way down to the Missouri River, it’s left big holes, its left barren landscapes," Jarding said. "Mining may have made a lot of money for people who owned the Homestake company, and for some miners, but for the population as a whole, mining is much less financially beneficial.”

When business leaders say opposition groups can stifle economic development, Jarding has a response.

“We’re not business unfriendly," Jarding said. "We support the tourism, outdoor recreation, and agricultural industries that are the backbone of the state and our economy.”

Jarding said interactions with opposing groups can be “adversarial,” but she says citizen groups have an edge on companies.

“This is where we live. This is where people raise their children and grandchildren," Jarding said. "This is where people have rights from time immemorial to the area. That makes it so that we have a lot to lose if these companies get their way and get mining projects and other destructive projects – and the law is often on our side as well.”

Some of the state’s most controversial projects involve utilities – pipelines and energy facilities requiring state permits. Those go before the elected Public Utilities Commission.

PUC Chair Chris Nelson said controversy is familiar territory for the commission members.

“Large electric transmission lines, large wind farms, oil pipelines, carbon dioxide pipelines, before those can be built, they need to get a permit from the PUC," Nelson said. "And obviously those kinds of projects can be divisive among folks in the proposed area.”

Nelson said while the PUC works on the permits, its authority has limits.

“The PUC does not make legislative or populist-type decisions," Nelson said. "We don’t set policy. We don’t make law. Rather, we are an administrative or a quasi-judicial body.”

That means permitting debates defer to state law.

“When we work through those difficult permitting questions what we are working against is what has already established in state law that is put there by the legislature to protect the people and the environment and the land of the people of South Dakota,” Nelson said.

Nelson is currently running for reelection as a Republican to the three-chair Public Utilities Commission. His Democratic challenger is Jeff Barth.

On the same ballot, voters in Sioux Falls will also see the question about the city’s proposed meatpacking plant.

C.J. Keene is a Rapid City-based journalist covering the legal system, education, and culture