This just in from Ron Gustafson, landowner right by the red and white pine old growth forest where Excelsior Energy announced it wants to put the Mesaba plant, a big coal gasification power plant. Here’s what he’ll see out his door:


The group of local landowners has put together the Minnesota Coal Gasification Plant Information Site.

Ron said this column was in yesterday’s Hibbing Tribune.

Questions remain in Excelsior Energy project

By Aaron J. Brown

The words ?eminent domain? seem harmless on paper, but for some local landowners those words crush dreams.

Ron Gustafson, his wife and brother-in-law own a cabin on Big Diamond Lake in Itasca County they had hoped would be a retirement paradise starting next year. Instead, they recently learned that Excelsior Energy might take over the unspoiled forests around Big Diamond and Dunning lakes to build a coal gasification power plant.

?It would end our Minnesota dream,? Gustafson told me in a recent radio interview on 91.7 KAXE.

Even more troubling was that Gustafson and other affected landowners only found out about possibly losing their land in the pages of their local newspapers.

Two years ago, we heard an idea to produce power on the Iron Range, creating good jobs and needed energy for the Midwest?s increasingly taxed power grid. Excelsior Energy, a fledgling company run by the lobbyist couple of Tom Micheletti and Julie Jorgenson, said the Mesaba Energy Project would involve an innovative new plant on the former LTV mine site in Hoyt Lakes.

Iron Range Resources invested millions of dollars early on, with support from local state lawmakers. Those same lawmakers passed legislation that gave Excelsior the right to use eminent domain in unprecedented ways, while also waiving the law that requires power companies to show they have an actual customer for the power. In most regions of the country, this would never fly, but ?jobs, jobs, jobs? was the rallying cry, and it went through.

Two weeks ago, President Bush signed a massive energy bill that included $800 million in loan guarantees for Excelsior Energy. The project enjoyed support from both sides of the aisle. Now the company says it will raise the remaining funds and start the plant sometime after 2010.

We need growth in Northeastern Minnesota. Retail development from Grand Rapids to Hibbing, possible steel and iron nugget production and a revved up mining industry all feel good after Northern Minnesota faced such bad economic news over the past five years.

But we need to be smart about that growth, and when taxpayers invest in something the way we?ve invested in this Mesaba Energy Project, we need to be firm in our expectations.

We were told this project would be on the site of the former LTV mine, already an industrial location. Instead, Micheletti announced in June that the Big Diamond Lake area and its all-natural surroundings off of Scenic Highway 7 was the new site. I still don?t have a firm idea of the reason for this.

We were told at one time that this project would create as many as 1,000 jobs. In the same June announcement Excelsior halved that figure. And, even 500 jobs seems high when compared to other similarly-sized power plants. How much of this was designed to win political favor?

And there is still lingering doubt in my mind about a 500-plus megawatt power plant where the only possible customer (Xcel Energy) is mandated by the government to purchase power produced from sources like coal gasification. Another major coal gas plant created under a similar set of circumstances in Indiana closed, and couldn?t reopen until once again bailed out by government funding (much of it from the same energy bill signed last week).

Maybe what bothers me the most about this is Excelsior?s impaired sense of irony. You see, the word ?scenic? in Scenic Highway 7 is not just an adjective, but it?s part of the OFFICIAL NAME OF THE HIGHWAY. Abundant signs tout the name, and the road itself leads to Scenic State Park. The site Excelsior now wants to use is in large part an untouched forest, when literally dozens of large, vacant industrial settings exist from one end of the Iron Range to the other.

The former mine sites and other vacant areas around Hibbing seem full of potential power plant sites. Perhaps the power company found it easier to push around private citizens than mining land feeholders?

Indeed, the lakes along Scenic Highway 7 might be ideal channels to send millions of gallons of warm water discharge through wetlands, the Swan and Mississippi rivers according to Excelsior Energy. But that doesn?t make it the best place to put a power plant. As of today, we taxpayers have put more money into this project than anyone else. As an Itasca County taxpayer, I expect better. The Big Diamond and Dunning Lake landowners expect better. So should you.

Producing cleaner energy on the Iron Range remains a sensible pursuit, worthy of support, but don?t sell us on one site and then pull the wool over our eyes. Lots of well-intentioned local leaders supported this project, but if Excelsior plans to abuse its almost unbelievable rights of eminent domain it should not expect the good will to last much longer.

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

The Minnesota League of Women Voters included the Mesaba Project in its 2005 Capitol Letter — click on Energy scroll down for Mesaba!

Here’s the site they’ve picked: View image

We’ll have to be sure the Mesaba supporters get the thanks they deserve, including Northfield’s Rep. Ray Cox, a coauthor of the Mesaba bill, H.F. 964, and off in Washington, Sen. Mark Dayton and Sen. Norm Coleman… what’s appropriate for something this absurd?

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