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Big Stone power plant runs into roadblock

This image shows an artist's rendering of the proposed 500- to 580-megawatt Big Stone II coal-fired power plant.

Citing conflicts with the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency has suspended plans for a South Dakota coal plant that would provide power throughout Western Minnesota, including Alexandria.

Known as Big Stone II, the proposed 500- to 580-megawatt plant would be an estimated $1.6 billion expansion of an existing facility located in Big Stone City, South Dakota, along the Minnesota-South Dakota border.

If built, it would generate enough electricity to power 400,000 homes in Minnesota, Iowa, Montana, South Dakota and North Dakota.

In a letter sent to state regulators January 22 - the final day of a 45-day review period - EPA officials listed several objections with an air quality permit granted to Big Stone last November by the South Dakota Board of Minerals and Environment.

The EPA decision comes a week after the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved with conditions a large-scale power line project that would transmit the electricity generated by Big Stone II to local utilities across the state, including Alexandria Light and Power.

Al Crowser, ALP general manager, said he's not "particularly concerned" about the EPA's review of the proposed coal plant, yet.

"If [regulators] started throwing up some unreasonable roadblocks to it, then I would be concerned," he said.

In their assessment, federal officials said the South Dakota permit didn't set proper output limits for the chemicals sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrous oxide (NOx) - both contribute to acid rain - nor did it create controls to adequately monitor the plant's overall emissions.

"We are objecting because the proposed Title V permit fails to comply with the above-cited [prevention of significant deterioration] requirements for ensuring that the Big Stone project will not result in significant net emission increases for S02 and NOx at the Big Stone plant," the EPA report stated.

South Dakota regulators and plant officials have 90 days to make the required changes.

"We, the EPA, expect [Big Stone officials] will be able to fulfill those requirements," said Carl Daly, chief of the regional air-permitting unit that filed the objections.

Although it's been a few years since his office has had to hold up a project in order to clear any issues with federal statutes, Daly said the EPA as a whole usually does it several times each year.

"It's not common," he said, "but it's not unheard of."

Minnesota environmental groups opposed to Big Stone have applauded the EPA's decision to delay the project, and said they intend to keep fighting the proposed coal plant, either by going back before the state's utilities commission, or possibly taking the issue to court.

Plant opponents argue that the utilities behind the project are underestimating its cost to consumers, especially if the government begins regulating carbon emissions, as the Obama administration has promised to do.

Big Stone adversaries say the plant would release tons of chemicals, such as carbon dioxide and mercury, into the atmosphere, and Minnesota should focus on boosting production of cleaner renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar.

Crowser said investing in renewable energy is important, but current green technologies cannot consistently provide enough electricity to meet today's demands, let alone tomorrow's.

ALP's usage rates jumped 10 percent in 2008, he said, due to higher operating costs and tighter energy supplies, and customers can expect another 10 percent increase this year.

The region needs a new significant source of power, Crowser said, and the only way to get it in a cost-effective manner is through coal.

"[Environmentalists] are wishing and hoping that coal-fire generation will be more expensive than other ways to [generate electricity]," he said. "They can't wish it to be higher because it's not a higher cost."

Joel Levie, a local beekeeper opposed to Big Stone, said while it's true that demand for energy keeps rising, coal is not the answer.

"We have to come up with sustainable, renewable energy production," he said. "It's crucial."

The Evansville farmer said he was "elated" when he heard the EPA had delayed the project.

"I am hoping it is truly the end of the Big Stone project," Levie said. "And those people [behind it] redirect their energies toward something that is helpful for our local community and our environment."