Excelsior Energy debate goes to the public

Canisteo Pit
The Excelsior Energy Powerplant proposal would take water from the Canisteo Pit to cool the coal-fired facility. Locals are worried the water being returned to the pit would cloud the pristine water, and ultimately pollute it so much it would hurt the trout fishing. Plant proponents say that won't happen, and that using the water will help alleviate possible flooding problems.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

The Canisteo Pit is essentially a 1,400 acre lake in eastern Itasca County. It formed from groundwater seepage into abandoned mine pits.

Canisteo's remarkably clear water is some 300 feet deep. The pit has been stocked with trout and it is popular with area anglers. It's also within easy reach of Excelsior Energy's proposed coal gasification power plant near the town of Taconite.

That plant, known as the Mesaba Energy Project, will need plenty of water for its cooling towers. Dr. Ed Anderson lives south of the proposed power plant. Anderson is worried about Excelsior's plans to draw water from the Canisteo pit.

Ed Anderson
Dr. Ed Anderson is worried about the environmental risks of living near a proposed coal-gasification power plant. Anderson is a member of the group Citizens Against the Mesaba Project, or CAMP. He's also on a citizen's advisory task force to advize officials developing an Environmental Impact Statement for the Mesaba Energy Project.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"What they plan to do is just put the water through their cooling towers and put it directly back into the Canisteo Lake," Anderson says.

But 80 percent of the water will be lost to evaporation, meaning the remaining 20 percent will carry, per volume, a much richer load of minerals. Anderson says the water that returns to the pit will slowly push up the entire pit's mineral load.

"And that will increase mercury. It will increase sulfates, and it will increase total hardness a lot," Anderson says.

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Anderson says documents filed by Excelsior Energy show they foresee the possibility of that happening to the Canisteo Pit.

"They say that over the course of 30 years, it will be at a critical mass such that they can't use it potentially in the plant anymore, and can't discharge it anymore," Anderson says. "And their plan is to address it at that time."

Looking at the proposed Mesaba Energy site
Excelsior Energy President Tom Micheletti, (left,) shows an unidentified ATV operator where the proposed Mesaba Energy Project power plant would be located near the town of Taconite.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

And Anderson worries that the mineral problem won't just stay in the pit. There are plans to drain excess water from Canisteo into another popular lake to the south, Trout Lake. That's because Canisteo's water levels are constantly rising, threatening to flood the nearby towns of Bovey and Coleraine. Power plant developers say they can draw down the pit by using the water.

Also, Canisteo's clean water is supposed to help reduce phosphorus now in Trout Lake - unless, of course, Canisteo develops a pollution problem of its own.

But that's not going to happen, according to Tom Micheletti, Co-President of Excelsior Energy.

Micheletti says mineralization might never happen in the spring-fed pit. And if there is a problem, he says, it can be fixed.

Tom Micheletti
Tom Micheletti is Co-President and CEO of Excelsior Energy, the company proposing the Mesaba Energy Project.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"We have things that we can do to deal with, to the extent that that certain constituents in the water do concentrate up in the pits, 25 or 30 years out," says Micheletti. "There are things, steps, that we can take to eliminate that problem."

The predicted mineralization is reminiscent of a problem at the Minntac Taconite plant near Mountain Iron. Minntac reused pit water in its pellet making processes, until the minerals in the water were so rich they were damaging equipment.

But, according to Micheletti, Minntac didn't see the problem coming, while his power company does.

"And it's a difficult thing to do if you haven't planned ahead,"says Micheletti. "And we're planning ahead, because we know this is a 40 or 50 year facility, and that we need to think through how we'll handle that."

The Minnesota Department of Commerce holds public meetings on the Iron Range this week, to hear about which environmental issues should be addressed in an Environmental Impact Statement. It will consider things like water quality, air emissions and wetland mitigations. Project Manager Bill Storm, with the Department of Commerce, says these kind of meetings do make a difference in a project's final documents.

"There can be things that are brought up in these public meetings that we weren't aware of, or needs that the local public has concerns about, that we can consider as we move through the process, especially as we get to writing the site permit," says Storm.

Excelsior Energy's draft Environmental Impact Statement is expected late this year.