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Hearing set next week for Big Stone II power line proposal

WILLMAR -- Two administrative law judges will consider a proposal next week to build and operate electric transmission lines in western Minnesota to serve a scaled-back version of the Big Stone II power plant.

Administrative law judges Steve Mihalchick and Barbara Neilson had originally recommended on Aug. 16, 2007, that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approve the transmission lines to carry power to Minnesota from the Big Stone II plant, which would be built next to the existing Big Stone plant near Big Stone City, S.D.

However, the transmission line proposal was delayed on Oct. 11, 2007, by the Minnesota PUC to give Big Stone II proponents time to revamp their plans after two of seven original partners pulled out of the power plant project in September.

Big Stone II was originally proposed to produce 630 megawatts of energy.

However, the project was revised after Great River Energy and Southern Minnesota Municipal Power Agency pulled out.

That left Otter Tail Power Company of Fergus Falls, the lead partner, and four other utility companies. They're now proposing to build a smaller coal-fired plant to produce between 500 and 580 megawatts.

Although that's smaller than the earlier proposal, the reduction is not enough to warrant reducing the size of the transmission system upgrade, said John Sundvor of Fargo, a senior media advisor for Big Stone II.

The judges had recommended the PUC issue a certificate of need to build and operate the lines.

The judges had also recommended the PUC issue routing permits for a 230-kilovolt line from the South Dakota border to Morris or Willmar; and a 345-kilovolt line from the South Dakota border to Granite Falls.

While the PUC is considering the certificate for the power line upgrade, Big Stone II opponents are hoping to stop construction of the plant by convincing the PUC to reject the certificate of need, said Sundvor.

Janette Brimmer, legal director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy of St. Paul, said the center still believes the power line permit should be rejected.

"We don't think that the case has been made for sale of that power here in Minnesota and therefore, for the transmission lines,'' she said. "That will continue to be our position.''

Brimmer said the PUC returned the matter to Mihalchick and Neilson to take supplemental evidence and testimony on the new plan. The hearing takes place Wednesday morning at the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission office in downtown St. Paul.

Meanwhile, the South Dakota Supreme Court upheld the decision by a S.D. commission to grant a construction permit for the Big Stone II plant.

The high court said Wednesday that the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission followed all laws in approving the permit and deciding the coal-fired power plant would not increase emissions of carbon dioxide by enough to seriously injure the environment.

Some environmental groups had argued that the PUC made a mistake because evidence showed carbon dioxide emissions will harm the environment.

"Our review of the record shows the PUC entered a well-reasoned and informed decision when it concluded that Big Stone II would not pose a threat of serious injury to the environment," Justice John K. Konenkamp wrote for the Supreme Court.