Hearings begin for Big Stone II power line

BENSON -- Minnesota Administrative Law Judge Steven Mihalchick says he'll decide whether opposition to the existence of the Big Stone II power plant in South Dakota will affect his recommendation about transmission lines in Minnesota.

BENSON -- Minnesota Administrative Law Judge Steven Mihalchick says he'll decide whether opposition to the existence of the Big Stone II power plant in South Dakota will affect his recommendation about transmission lines in Minnesota.

Mihalchick must make a recommendation about the need for new and upgraded transmission lines in Minnesota to serve the proposed power plant.

Mihalchick said attorneys for environmental groups opposed to the South Dakota power plant and attorneys for the seven companies and agencies that will own the plant will be discussing the issue with him.

The judge will make two recommendations to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission: whether the lines are needed and are in the public interest; and he'll recommend the location of the lines and discuss the effects on the environment and people.

The power plant owners have received solid waste, surface water and siting permits from South Dakota to build the proposed power plant next to the smaller Big Stone I plant near Big Stone City, S.D. The new, larger coal-fired plant would produce 630 megawatts of power and is currently estimated to cost about $1.6 billion, up from an earlier estimate of about a billion dollars.


Meanwhile, Mihalchick is taking testimony in a series of hearings on a certificate of need and on a route permit for the power plant's transmission lines.

Otter Tail Power Company of Fergus Falls and six other power companies and agencies have applied for the certificate of need and for the route permit from the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The high-voltage transmission lines would serve the proposed Big Stone II plant.

The first hearing was held Monday in Benson. The sixth and final hearing will be Oct. 16 in St. Paul. According to a timetable set by the Minnesota Department of Commerce, Mihalchick will issue a report in February 2007 and the Public Utilities Commission will make its decision in March.

"Is it appropriate for the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to, in some people's view, get involved in the South Dakota approval of the power plant in South Dakota?'' said Mihalchick in a Tribune interview during a recess in Monday's hearing.

"Both sides are having disputes about how much information they have to provide to each other,'' he said. "The question is being raised about whether the applicants must provide data about the plant itself, and they are claiming that it's not really relevant to the Minnesota proceeding on the power line. And there's arguments both ways.''

Beth Goodpastor, staff attorney for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, said the hearings before Mihalchick are about a power plant and power lines.

"I think the most important thing is that the (Minnesota) Public Utilities Commission has taken a stand on that, and we agree with the Public Utilities Commission when it said that the power plant and the power line projects are inextricably linked,'' said Goodpastor in an interview. "They're both part of the same issue. They have to be considered together.''

Goodpastor said the center represents a coalition of organizations opposed to the power plant. In comments to the judge, Goodpastor said one reason the hearing is being held at all is because the Big Stone II companies want to build a coal plant.


"And if they built the Big Stone II coal plant, it would overload the current transmission system and violate regional reliability criteria,'' she said.

Goodpastor said Big Stone II would be a huge new source of global warming pollution and would cost ratepayers far more than its backers project. Goodpastor said better, cleaner options like wind power are available.

Steve Schultz, manager of external affairs for Otter Tail Power Company, said his company would argue that the hearings are about transmission lines and not about power plants, "and we're hoping that that's the way it goes.

"However, we are also confident that our power plant issues are straightforward and managed right that we would get that permit either way,'' he told the Tribune. "It should be a transmission certificate, but it's complicated.''

Schultz said the lawyers are still sorting out the contention that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission has linked the power plant and power lines.

"I don't know that we have that answer yet for sure,'' Schultz said. "The judge will sort through those things with attorneys from both sides and we'll see where it goes.''

According to Big Stone II proponents, the plant "will use the most efficient, commercial proven technology available to generate electricity with fewer emissions.'' The transmission project, they say, will be "supersized'' to make room for additional generation, including renewable energy, while improving reliability to all customers.

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