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EPA to examine Sherco pollution in haze dispute

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The U.S. Evironmental Protection Agency will determine whether Minnesota's largest coal-fired power plant is contributing to haze in national parks and needs more pollution controls.

In a court filing late Tuesday, the EPA agreed to issue its findings and recommendations for Xcel Energy's Sherburne County Generating Station by February 27, 2015. The move comes five years after the National Park Service determined that pollution from Xcel Energy's Sherco plant was contributing to haze at Voyageurs and Isle Royale national parks and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

When the EPA took no action on the National Park Service's finding, several environmental groups sued. Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy attorney Kevin Reuther said advocates hope the EPA will conclude the plant is contributing to haze and needs to install additional pollution controls. 

"It's important that it be ordered so that we can figure out a plan of whether or not installing that really expensive equipment at a plant is worth it or whether it should just be shut down and replaced with a cleaner alternative," he said. 

The possibility that Sherco contributes to haze in national parks is not the only challenge the plant is facing. New proposed EPA rules on carbon emissions have also sparked questions over whether the plant's two older units can keep operating economically into the future. 

"This is one more indicator that Xcel really needs to make a plan on what to do with those two older units at Sherco," Reuther said. "We're getting a lot of our power from them now. They are very dirty, old units. They're going to need to be cleaned up one way or the other."

Xcel officials have said the addition of pollution control equipment earlier at Sherco has reduced emissions, and the utility has disputed that Sherco contributes to haze at the national parks and the Boundary Waters. The utility plans to study Sherco's future as part of its next resource plan to be filed with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission in January. 

On Wednesday, Xcel officials said they are reviewing the EPA's plans and waiting for a court to determine whether the utility can intervene in the dispute. 

In a written statement, officials said they are "disappointed the other parities are trying to move forward at this time. Xcel Energy has invested, and will continue to invest, in clean energy strategies that protect the environment, improve the electricity system and provide value to our customers."