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Both sides plead cases as Big Stone II hearings progressing

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ST. PAUL -- Supporters of the Big Stone II power plant say it will cost $110 million to run transmission lines from the proposed eastern South Dakota facility into western Minnesota.

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But a group against the project argues that power companies trying to build a second coal-burning plant near Big Stone City, S.D., haven't accounted for other factors, such as an increase in air pollution.

The two sides squared off Tuesday in the first of several days of hearings over whether the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission should accept an application to build transmission lines in the state.

Building a new coal-fueled plant will cost consumers less than if regional power companies purchase more energy from other providers, said Rod Scheel, a vice president of Fergus Falls-based Otter Tail Power Co., the lead developer of the Big Stone II project.

"The load on our system is growing," Scheel said of an increased need for energy in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Otter Tail Power serves 423 communities including Fergus Falls, Morris and Bemidji in Minnesota and Jamestown, N.D.

An attorney for Big Stone II opponents said the project's proponents are overlooking key details, including the potential for more pollutants and escalating costs for the transmission lines, which would distribute additional power across the region.

"The applicants have not shown the costs of this project or even evaluated the risks of the project," said Elizabeth Goodpaster, an attorney for five environmental organizations fighting the request.

South Dakota officials already approved construction of the 630-megawatt Big Stone II plant, so opponents hope to stop the project by convincing the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to reject the request to run two proposed power transmission lines into six Minnesota counties.

One transmission line would extend from the power plant near the South Dakota-Minnesota border south to Canby and then east to Granite Falls. The other line would stretch from the South Dakota plant either northeast to Morris or east to Willmar.

Dan Sharp of Montana-Dakota Utilities Co., who is managing communications for Big Stone II, said public hearings were held in communities that would be affected by the project and nobody opposed it.

If approved, the $1.6 billion project's targeted completion date is 2012, Sharp said.

The hearings began about a week after the environmental group Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against the first Big Stone power plant, claiming officials haven't done enough to reduce pollution from that coal-fired plant.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission case isn't directly related to that plant or the lawsuit. Goodpaster acknowledged the distinction but said of the lawsuit: "I think it's a significant risk factor associated with this project."

Big Stone II proponents dismissed the notion that a South Dakota lawsuit could influence the application for transmission lines in Minnesota.

The judges will then issue their recommendation to the five-member Public Utilities Commission, which isn't expected to issue its ruling on the transmission lines until March.

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