Critics voice concerns at Iron Range power plant EIS meeting

Excelsior Energy project
An artist's rendition of Excelsior Energy's proposed Mesaba Energy coal gasification plant
Image courtesy Excelsior Energy

Excelsior Energy's draft Environmental Impact Statement lays out the major potential consequences of building a $2 billion, 600 megawatt coal gasification power plant in Itasca County.

To be fair, the meeting in Taconite was never intended to be a balanced debate on the electric power project. It was supposed to gather concerns and comments on an 800 page EIS. To hear the people who turned out on a bitterly cold Iron Range night, there are plenty of potential problems the study's authors overlooked.

Ross Hammond
Ross Hammond, works with Fresh Energy which opposes the plant proposal.
MPR photo/Bob Kelleher

Ross Hammond set the tone. Hammond represents the group Fresh Energy - an organization that's no fan of coal-fired power. Excelsior's power plant is supposed to be able to capture carbon dioxide from coal. Carbon dioxide is believed a leading cause of global warming.

"It's ready to capture carbon - carbon dioxide," Hammond said, "But we're not going to capture the carbon dioxide. So, if they do not capture carbon dioxide, it's going to be the second biggest polluter of carbon dioxide in the state, and it's just going to be an expensive power plant."

Excelsior officials say they intend to develop carbon capture eventually; but that wouldn't happen in the early phase of the power project.

But area resident Ron Gustafson doubts it'll ever happen.

"Excelsior's carbon capture sequestration plan is merely a conceptual scenario with no established time line, cost estimate, or cost impact analysis to rate payers. It's a pipe dream," he said.

Linda Castagneri
Linda Castagneri says she is worried about exposure to high voltage power lines, and about air pollution from the plant, like the kind of small particles that can come from a power plant stack.
MPR photo/Bob Kelleher

The lack of a carbon plan was mentioned by many at the meeting - as were related concerns about a pipeline that could some day take carbon from the Iron Range as far as North Dakota.

Charlie Decker, a doctor from Hibbing, says the Iron Range is the wrong place for the coal gasification power plant.

"It should be build somewhere where the coal is located," he said. "Somewhere where carbon dioxide can be sequestrated, 'dumped in the ground' as the one speaker said, and would not cost a fortune and make the product, as another speaker mentioned, cost prohibitive for sale - and increase the cost of power to consumers."

Others had worries closer to home. Linda Castagneri worried about exposure to high voltage power lines, and about air pollution, like the kind of small particles that can come from a power plant stack. She says the EIS has no in-depth study of potential respiratory problems.

"If we have adequate funding to fund a high risk demonstration plant, there exists in this country, adequate funding to study properly, and make appropriate comments regarding these health issues," she said.

No one spoke in defense of the project. The pro-business Itasca Economic Development Group's Mike Andrews says his organization will take seriously comments to the EIS and draw up a response. In the past, that group has been a strong project supporter.

But Carol Overland hasn't. The attorney has been a vocal opponent and a party to recent hearings before the Public Utilities Commission. So far, the PUC has refused to mandate Excelsior's proposed power purchase agreement with Minneapolis based Xcel Energy. Without that agreement, the project can't happen.

Overland expressed her frustration that EIS meetings are even happening.

"And here we are, you know, wasting our time doing this," she said as some in the audience applauded. "And I find that really offensive. I've been on this project for almost seven years."

Another meeting on the EIS is tonight in the town of Hoyt Lakes, which is considered a fall back site if the Taconite site gets rejected.

Written comments will be taken through January 11th, and the Public Utilities Commission could be making a final decision on the EIS, and whether the project gets permitted, next May.