When an expansion of the Big Stone coal-fired power plant was
announced, conventional wisdom said that it couldn’t be stopped.
Utilities across the country forecast the need for large numbers of new
plants to satisfy our insatiable demand for more and more electricity. Big Stone II, as the project became known, seemed like one of an inevitable wave of new coal-fire power plants sweeping the nation.
Mary Jo Stueve, Clean Water Action
organizer in South Dakota, wasn’t buying it. Mary Jo turned on the full
power of grassroots and began organizing South Dakotans around the impacts of the
plant on public health in general and water in particular. The plant,
which would have been near Milbank, South Dakota, was to have been
built on the shores of Big Stone Lake, headwaters to the Minnesota
River, near the Minnesota border.
The project was granted water permits that would have allowed allow them to draw up to draw 3.2 billion gallons annually from Big Stone Lake.
This is equivalent to 2 feet from a lake that averages a depth of 8
feet. The impacts to the lake habitat, recreation and those living
along the lake would have been devastating. The Minnesota River
was named as the fifth most endangered river in the country in 2008,
mostly due to mercury pollution and the additional water draw downs
from Big Stone.
It was a bad idea. A bad idea with lots of money behind it and a
permitting process that seemed to be greased for fast approval by the
states and George Bush’s EPA. The plant was sited in South Dakota due
to what was seen as a less rigorous regulatory standard compared to
neighboring Minnesota. South Dakota came through for the proposed plant
with an air permit.
But other forces were at work. Clean Water Action, joined a Sierra Club lawsuit to challenge the South Dakota air permit, keeping the fight alive. Then came a huge setback for the project. Three days after taking office, President Obama’s EPA returned the air permit to South Dakota to redo portions.
About half of the expected customers were located in Minnesota which
meant the Big Stone II partners needed to build a new transmission line
across western Minnesota. This gave the Minnesota Public Utilities
Commission authority to review the project. According to Minnesota law,
this includes an evaluation of the need for a fossil fuel power plant
and an evaluation of how construction of Big Stone II would affect
Minnesota consumers. A Clean Water Action and coalition of groups in
Minnesota banded together to challenge the project based on air, water
and public health impacts as well as the impacts on the pocket book of
The Minnesota PUC ultimately approved the transmission lines but
they placed a critical stipulation on Otter Tail Power, the project
lead. They ruled that cost overruns from construction costs and
expected future costs of global warming pollution emissions had to be
absorbed by Otter Tail Power investors rather than passed on to their
customers. The Minnesota PUC saw a risky project and would not allow
consumers to be stuck with the costs of a failed gamble.
Two months ago Otter Tail Power pulled out of the project. This was
preceded by the withdrawal of Great River Energy last year. The
remaining partners in the $1.6 billion project were left scrambling to
Montana-Dakota Utilities, Company Central Minnesota Municipal Power
Agency, Heartland Consumers Power District and Missouri River Energy
Services, what remained of the original group of investing utilities, announced the closure of the project on November 2, 2009.
When ordinary people and organizations across Minnesota and South
Dakota vowed to fight this plant, there was a great deal of skepticism
that such a fight could be successful. Many had written Big Stone II
off as a done deal and not worth spending the resources to defeat.
There are some important lesson in this. Every coal fired power plant
must be challenged and can be stopped. Change is inevitable, and the
time for new coal fired power plants has passed. An informed public is
going to defeat coal plants. It takes grass roots power and a commitment for the long haul. We have plenty of both.