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DNR says further environmental study not required for Minnesota Falls dam removal

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has determined that an environmental impact statement will not be required on plans by Xcel Energy to remove the Minnesota Falls dam on the Minnesota River south of Granite Falls. (Tribune file photo)

MINNESOTA FALLS -- The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has determined that an environmental impact statement will not be required for the removal of the Minnesota Falls dam.

The Sept. 27 decision is based on a review of an environmental assessment worksheet completed by Barr Engineering for Xcel Energy, and on public comments to it.

The environmental assessment worksheet -- a questionnaire about the project's setting and potential for environmental harm -- is a screening tool used to determine whether a full environmental impact statement is needed. An environmental impact statement is an in-depth analysis used for major development projects that will significantly change the environment.

Xcel Energy owns the dam and has indicated it intends to remove the structure next year. The decision not to require the in-depth environmental impact statement removes a potential obstacle to the removal.

The DNR concluded that the environmental impact statement, a far more comprehensive and costly examination, is not required "because the project does not have the potential for significant environmental effects.''

In response to comments challenging its removal, the DNR stated that the dam's removal "would provide a long-term environmental and ecological benefit to the Minnesota River between the Minnesota Falls dam and the Granite Falls dam, and to downstream reaches.''

The decision is the latest in setbacks to those who are opposed to the plans by Xcel Energy to remove the dam.

In September, the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners declined to participate in a proposed joint powers agreement that would have also involved the city of Granite Falls and Yellow Medicine County. The Minnesota Falls dam is located on a portion of the Minnesota River forming the boundary between the two counties.

Granite Falls Energy, an ethanol plant located in Chippewa County, has urged the counties to take ownership of the dam in hopes it could be maintained or that a large, rock rapids could be built in its place to maintain the river elevation. The company has the water intake for its ethanol plant located in the reservoir created by the dam, and estimates it could cost as much as $2 million to modify the intake if the dam is removed.

The Granite Run Golf Course and city of Granite Falls could also experience economic costs due to the dam's removal. The decision on the environmental assessment worksheet noted that it is based strictly on environmental issues, and not potential economic costs.

Kenneth Koenen, chairman of the Chippewa County Board of Commissioners, said the board is concerned about the potential economic impact to the river users. However, he said the commissioners did not believe the county could take on the potential liability of dam ownership and all that entails, particularly since the county essentially has no authority over matters involving the Minnesota River.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Minnesota DNR oversee matters involving the river, and could require very expensive investments if the dam is either repaired or replaced with a rock rapids structure, he said.

A study for Xcel Energy indicated it would cost $2.5 million to remove the dam. That compares to estimates of $6 million to $7 million to repair it, and around $6 million to develop a rock rapids structure.

The dam no longer serves any purpose for Xcel Energy. It once housed a hydroelectric generation plant, and its reservoir created cooling water for the Minnesota Valley coal plant located upstream. The hydroelectric plant and structures were removed, and the Minnesota Valley plant no longer is operated.

The Granite Falls City Council intends to meet Thursday with representatives of the Chippewa County Board to discuss the commissioners' recent decision and what involvement the government units may want to pursue.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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