South Dakota power plant worries Minnesota residents

Big Stone from Ortonville
Standing near downtown Ortonville the Big Stone Power Plant is easily visible a few miles west of town. Government regulators in South Dakota and Minnesota are studying the proposed expansion of the facility.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

The inside of the Big Stone Power Plant is a maze of pipes and wires. Steve Schultz points to miles of black cable transmitting information from every part of the plant to the control room.

Further along the red glow of burning coal lights tiny portholes in the main boiler. Overhead, pipes carry water into the boiler and steam out. The steam travels on to what Big Stone communications manger Schultz calls the heart of the plant.

"This is the turbine generator, this is what actually creates the electricity," says Schultz.

Steve Schultz is the public communications manager for the Big Stone plant project
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

The turbines at Big Stone have turned out electricity since 1975. Much of the electricity heads east to the Twin Cities and other points in Minnesota. Schultz says there's a growing demand for the power.

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"Electricity consumption or use has been growing about two and a half percent per year over a long period of time," says Schultz. "And it's forecasted to do that at least the next 15 years."

Schultz says to meet that demand a group of seven utility companies want to construct another coal plant next to the current Big Stone Plant. The new building will roughly double the size of the power plant. The complex is located a little more than two miles west of Ortonville, Minnesota. It's projected the old and new plants together would generate enough electricity to supply more than 600,000 homes.

"Our charge is to create economically affordable electricity for you and me and everyone else," says Schultz. "The new plant will be more efficient than this one, just technology changes. So, we're trying to do the right things. We're proud to be in this project and proud of this project."

As many as 1500 workers could be employed during the four years it takes to build the Big Stone addition. The new plant is billed as one of the largest construction projects in South Dakota history.

Brian Wojtalewicz is an attorney in Appleton. He wants the companies building the Big Stone addition to reconsider their decision.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Before construction begins the new plant will go through almost two years of government regulatory studies. There will be environmental impact statements, air quality permits and transmission line approvals. All that paperwork is being closely followed by the companies planning the new project.

It's also being closely watched by some western Minnesota residents living down wind of Big Stone.

"For years I watched the long, brown smog plume going right down the valley of the Minnesota River, right over Lac Qui Parle Lake," says Brian Wojtalewicz.

Brian Wojtalewicz says on a clear day he can see the Big Stone smokestack from his house some 25 miles away. The Appleton attorney says there are better alternatives than building another coal fired plant.

"It would open up a great opportunity for local wind production and biomass production of energy," says Wojtalewicz. "A lot more decentralized, community based, small 'd' democratic way of producing our energy. Instead of centralized, expensive pollution producing plants."

"It just seems like a no-brainer."

Wojtalewicz co-chairs a group called "Clean Up the River Environment" or CURE. He also writes a feisty column, "Let's Have At It" for the Appleton Press newspaper. A recent column left little doubt about his power plant position. Its title? "Our poisonous neighbor."

"Mercury is well established as a dangerous poison for infants, new-born babies, mothers who are pregnant are warned 'Don't eat much fish'," says Wojtalewicz. "And unfortunately, our lakes and rivers around here are all mercury warning lakes and rivers."

Wojtalewicz says technology exists to remove virtually all the pollutants. Officials at the Big Stone plant are taking steps to reduce emissions. Big Stone representative Steve Schultz says the utility plans to install a scrubber as part of the new construction. It will reduce but not end pollutants released by the plant.

"We'll take the output from 450 megawatts to 1050 megawatts and yet the site will stay as clean as it is today or cleaner," says Schultz.

Schultz says the plant currently releases about 189 pounds of mercury a year. Even though the new addition will more than double Big Stone's electricity production it's hoped the new scrubber will hold mercury emissions to well under the current figure. Schultz says the new scrubber will also significantly reduce another pollutant; sulfur dioxide.

"I don't think it would kill the plant project."

Appleton attorney Brian Wojtalewicz says it's still too much pollution. And he says pollution is not the only concern. Wojtalewicz says the economics of coal energy production are changing rapidly. For one thing the cost of coal is rising. Last year alone prices tripled. In addition, railroads are having trouble shipping enough coal. The Big Stone Power Plant has felt the impact, recently cutting production 25% because of low coal stockpiles. Wojtalewicz says it's a warning.

"So when you look at those factors, it just seems like a no-brainer," says Wojtalewicz. "They ought to reassess here just what they're doing."

Wojtalewicz hopes the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will alter the Big Stone project. He says the PUC will decide whether transmission lines needed to carry the Big Stone electricity should be built across western Minnesota.

Big Stone up close
The Big Stone Power Plant was completed in 1975. The proposed expansion would more than double it's production of electricity.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

"Minnesota has leverage here over this issue because they want to sell the power east," says Wojtalewicz.

Much of the information the PUC will use to make up its mind is being put together by the state Commerce Department. Commerce Department Deputy Commissioner Ed Garvey says the PUC is allowed to consider the coal issue in its deliberations on the power line question.

"In basically setting up the process, they have clearly made an indication that they need to understand the implications of the type of fuel selection," says Garvey. "And the implication not only of it for environmental purposes but for electrical generation and cost implications too."

It's unclear what will happen if Minnesota rejects or alters the power line project. Opponent Brian Wojtalewicz thinks it would block the expansion of the power plant. Big Stone Communications Manager Steve Schultz isn't so sure.

"I don't think it would kill the plant project," says Schultz. "It appears by studies the transmission lines we have designed make the most sense. There are options, how good are the options I don't know that, but there are options."

Whether any of those options are tested lies a long way down an intense regulatory and construction process. The Minnesota PUC expects to issue it's decision on the transmission lines early next year. That's also when the Big Stone partners hope to start construction. If they hold to that timetable, the first electricity from the power plant addition would begin flowing in 2011.