Citizens voice opinions on gasification plant

Melissa Cox
The Daily Tribune

Thursday, December 21st, 2006 10:33:21 AM

TACONITE â?? The proposed coal-fired gasification plant was once again the topic of debate this week.

Six public hearings regarding Excelsior Energyâ??s proposed power purchase agreement (PPA), which would require Xcel Energy to purchase power from a base load power generating facility to be located near Taconite or Hoyt Lakes, were held in St. Paul, Hoyt Lakes and Taconite this week.

The hearings allowed the public to voice comments and concerns on the Mesaba Energy Project. The comments will be placed on record and taken into consideration by administrative law judges from the state Office of Administrative Hearings.

After the record is closed, the parties involved will file briefs and replies, and then the administrative law judges will make reports to the Minnesota PUC. The Minnesota PUC makes the final decision regarding the PPA.

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The proposed coal-fed Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) power generation facility would be constructed in two phases. Each phase would have the capability of producing approximately 600 megawatts of base load power. Construction of the proposed project would begin in 2008 with the expected serve date of 2011. There would be approximately 1,000 construction jobs and about 100 people employed during operation. Excelsior Energy would construct and operate the facility.

Two public hearings were held at the Taconite Community Center regarding the PPA Wednesday. The community center was packed for the 1 p.m. hearing.

Bruce Johnson, administrative law judge, facilitated the hearing, which lasted more than two hours.

â??We will be forwarding all your written comments as well as this oral testimony on to the Public Utilities Commission for the commissionâ??s consideration when it receives our report,â? Johnson told attendees.

After Johnson explained the process, representatives from Excelsior Energy, Xcel Energy, Citizens Against the Mesaba Project, Minnesota Department of Commerce and Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy had a chance to speak. Then, the floor was open to the public with more than 30 people commenting. People spoke both for and against the project.

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Those in favor of the project focused on economic benefits to the region including high-paying jobs.

Peter McDermott, president of Itasca Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit corporation for helping create quality jobs in Itasca County, discussed the economic needs of Itasca County. He pointed out the county has high poverty levels, and this project would create jobs both directly and indirectly in the county.

Fred Tanner of Bovey said the schools have lost many children over the years and any type of economic improvement in the area would help the district and tax base. Tanner also pointed out that an advantage of the project would be using the water from Canisteo Pit, which could help with ongoing overflow issues.

Mark Mandich, Itasca County commissioner, said he is on record of supporting the project dependent on state permitting that is required in order for the plant to move forward.

Darrell Godvoug of a local ironworkers union said he supports the project because of the economic impact it would have.

Paul Dulong of Pengilly said economic development is required to keep this area going, to keep the school districts growing and to provide opportunity for people that are raising young families.

He said he was fortunate to have the opportunity to find a good-paying job in the area, but many of his classmates did not.

â??Generally, when you go to college you move on,â? he said. â??Thereâ??s no place to come back to. I was a displaced worker at Blandin. I went through the cutbacks of the forest industry. I watched the mining industry struggle. We have to diversify.

â??I heard people say, â??This is 100 jobs. What is 100 jobs?â?? Well, economic development spurs economic development and you have to take that step.â?

Being as strong on environmental standards as the state is, Dulong asserted that if this project passes those requirements, there is no doubt it needs to move forward to help the area grow.

Bob Schwartz noted as a small-business owner it is difficult to talk on record about the project. He said creation of 107 jobs is significant. He said he ran an ad for two full-time permanent positions with benefits for one day in the newspaper and received 197 applications, which is an indication that the area needs jobs.

Also, as a local football coach he has seen a lot of kids graduate and move away. He estimated that 90 to 95 percent would love to come back to the area and have good-paying jobs.

â??Those are the type of quality people we need to bring back,â? he said.

Schwartz said if it isnâ??t the power plant, then everyone in the room should band together for economic development.

Other supporters placed letters of supports from their organizations on record and talked about how they would like this area to be a place for future generations to live and work.

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Many concerns were raised from those who spoke in opposition to the project with a focus on environmental, health, economic and financial issues.

Jim Merhar, tribal chairman for White Earth Reservation on the Iron Range, said they are building an assisted living facility about a mile and a half from the plant. He said they have big concerns with the project including mercury, pollution, carbon, wetlands and water quality.

â??As native people, we really want clean water and clean air,â? he said. â??I donâ??t believe the taxpayers of this county should spend one dime building a railroad for this company …â?

LouAnne Hansen of Grand Rapids agreed that poverty is a huge problem in the area.

â??But, 100 jobs is such a small payment for the added financial responsibility for people living in the area to help pay for the infrastructure projects and the possible extra financial burden of Xcel customers,â? she said.

She noted that the economic ripple can go the other way with loss of tourism and other concerns, which she added is too big a price to pay.

Susan Backe of Grand Rapids said that a plant that offers 100 jobs will not eliminate poverty in Itasca County.

â??I would as a human being rather be poor and live in a clean house, than be rich and live in a dirty house, which is what is going happen to our lakes when the emissions from this proposed plant starts up,â? she said. â??I donâ??t feel this plant is beneficial for the citizens of northern Minnesota.â?

A concern raised by Charles Grant was that the technology needed to pull the carbon from the coal to keep it out of area lakes and peopleâ??s lungs isnâ??t there. Which in turn could cause health problems and environmental concerns.

Elmer Pederson said he supports the idea of having jobs in this area, but cannot support the project. He said the power isnâ??t being distributed in this area of the state, and residents shouldnâ??t have to deal with the contamination.

Murray Mills, of the Itasca Citizens for Responsible Government, opposed the project.

â??I think the key here this afternoon is the word responsible and we believe this project is irresponsible,â? he said.

Other concerns raised and questions asked include effect of carbon sequestration on reservoirs, mercury omission, effect on stock in Xcel Energy and Minnesota Power, too many uncertainties, effect on well water, cost of the project, potential of acid rain, who the project is going to benefit, and effect on property value.

Comments voiced at the meeting and other written statements filed before Friday will be placed on record and considered in the proceedings.

Written comments regarding the power purchase agreement can be mailed to Office of Administrative Hearings, 100 Washington Square, Suite 1700, Minneapolis, MN 55401-2138, emailed to or faxed to 1-612-349-2665. Comments have to be submitted by 4:30 p.m. Friday in order to be included as part of public record.

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