Area residents raise concerns about power line

GRANITE FALLS -- Concerns are emerging on two fronts over plans by Otter Tail Power and its partners to build a new coal-fired power plant near Milbank, S.D.

GRANITE FALLS -- Concerns are emerging on two fronts over plans by Otter Tail Power and its partners to build a new coal-fired power plant near Milbank, S.D.

Minnesota residents expressed concerns about the downwind plume of mercury that the 600-megawatt plant would emit. They also voiced concerns that there are no assurances that the additional capacity being included in transmission lines to carry that power into Minnesota will be reserved for renewable energy sources such as wind.

The lack of assurances that upgraded power lines to run into western Minnesota would be able to carry power produced by wind was of particular concern to Andrew Falk of Murdock, a private wind industry developer.

"It raises the question of what we are trying to achieve here," Falk said during a meeting hosted Thursday in Granite Falls by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and Department of Commerce.

It marked the fifth in a series of meetings held in the region to gather public input to define the scope for an environmental impact statement the Department of Commerce will be completing, according to David Birkholz, energy facility permitting, with the department.


South Dakota's Public Utilities Commission will be deciding whether or not to permit the coal-fired plant itself, according to Birkholz.

Minnesota's Public Utilities Commission will be making two decisions of its own: Whether to award a certificate of need for the two upgraded power lines needed to carry the majority of the plant's power to markets in Minnesota; and whether to approve the routes for those lines.

Otter Tail proposes to upgrade an existing line from Big Stone, S.D., to Morris to carry 23,000 volts. It also proposes to upgrade an existing line from Canby to Granite Falls to carry 345,000 volts. An alternative to the Big Stone-to-Morris line could be built to carry power through Swift County and to a point near Willmar, but right of way would be needed for this route, according to Otter Tail Power.

The Canby-to-Granite Falls line would carry 800 to 1,000 megawatts of capacity beyond that needed for the power produced by the Big Stone power plant.

Many had expected this extra capacity to be available to carry wind energy to urban markets and help develop that industry in the state.

However, most if not all of that excess is already spoken for by other power plants proposed in North and South Dakota, according to Falk, plants that presumably will be fired by coal or other fossil fuels when they come online.

Otter Tail Power cannot reserve transmission capacity for wind or any other power source, according to Steve Schultz, public communications manager with Otter Tail Power. The power is provided on a "first-come, first-served basis" by federal regulation.

State Rep. Aaron Peterson, DFL-Madison, voiced his concerns that the transmission system wouldn't be developed to serve smaller-scale power producers that could use renewable fuels and create more economic development in the region.


Duane Ninneman, a development consultant with Clean Up our River Environment in Montevideo, said a Department of Commerce report was critical of Otter Tail for not including more renewable energy and wind development in its own planning.

Others among the more than 60 people attending the meeting in Granite Falls raised objections to the mercury the new coal plant would send downwind into Minnesota.

Butch Halterman, a Montevideo science instructor, said that an upper portion of the Minnesota River is already considered impaired due to mercury falling into the water from the existing Big Stone power plant. He warned that mercury accumulates in the environment, and that the new plant would be damaging the health of children for generations to come.

"Do we want mercury in our children's children?" he asked. "It doesn't go away."

Dick Kroeger of Cottonwood held up a pop bottle and said that one-half capful of mercury poured into a 50-acre lake is enough to make all of the fish unsafe to eat in it.

The current Big Stone power plant emits 189 pounds of mercury into the atmosphere each year, according to Mary Joe Stueve, a Graceville resident and member of Clean Water Action.

Schultz said he did not know how much mercury the proposed plant would emit but said that it would incorporate a wet scrubbing system to reduce the emissions. He said the existing plant's emissions would also be sent through the scrubber.

Brian Wojtalewicz, an Appleton attorney and chairman of Clean Up our River Environment, said he had sent a written request to Otter Tail Power for information on the amount of mercury the combined Big Stone plants will emit but did not receive an answer that listed a quantity. Others said they have attempted to learn the actual amount of mercury to be emitted by checking the Environmental Protection Agency Web site and other sources, and also have been unable to find information.


Schultz said the company's engineers could provide those answers.

Birkholz said Minnesota PUC will be holding public hearings to gather comments, possibly this summer. The PUC could render a decision as early as December of this year.

Comments on the project can be sent to: David Birkholz, Energy Facility Permitting, 85 7th Place E., Suite 500, St. Paul 55101-2198 or by phone at (651) 296-2878 or by at fax (651) 297-7891 or by e-mail at .

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