Big Stone sinking? Judges’ decision encourages opponents of coal-fired electric plant

Published in Indian Country Today in 2008. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Agency, S.D. — On May 9, two Minnesota administrative law judges recommended against building transmission lines of the type shown here to carry power to their state from a proposed coal-burning electric power plant, Big Stone II. Otter Tail Power Company wishes to build the facility in South Dakota, just southeast of Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate’s Lake Traverse Reservation. The new plant would be right next to an existing coal-fired electric power plant, Big Stone I, which began operating in 1975.

Two days before the judges’ decision, on May 7, the tribal council of Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate had adopted a resolution opposing Big Stone II; the document notes water and air pollution already suffered on the Lake Traverse Reservation, thanks to the current plant. Because Big Stone II would draw on an aquifer the reservation relies on for water, the resolution also criticizes “potential impacts to [Lake Traverse’s] reserved water rights.”

“I commend the judges,” said Office of Environmental Protection Administrator Myrna Thompson, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate. “Rather than focusing on immediate financial gain, they demonstrated a vision for future generations and the environment.”

The two judges held that Otter Tail and its four partners (two have recently dropped out of the project) failed to prove the need for such a large-scale plant or that demand for electricity could not be better met with conservation and renewable energy sources. Nor did the utilities show that the plant would not increase global warming, the judges said.

On June 3, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will meet to make a final determination on the transmission lines, without which Big Stone II would not be built; an announcement is expected on June 5. 

Though Thompson was pleased about the judges’ decision and hoped the PUC would be influenced by it, she noted that Native people had been left out of the planning all along. The absence of mandated government-to-government federal-tribal consultations on the project meant that the tribes’ concerns were ignored, she said. “They’re forgetting the impacts on us. Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate is a treaty tribe. Where is the Interior Department when it comes to protecting our health and resources?”

Cancer, asthma and respiratory diseases are widespread on the reservation and in the counties surrounding the plant, according to Indian Health Service and National Cancer Institute data. Children under 10 are especially prone to asthma, Thompson said, while many older people also have illnesses such as bronchitis and lung cancer.

Local cancer rates are not just high, they are also rising, according to National Cancer Institute figures. Mary Jo Steuve, program coordinator of the national environmental group Clean Water Action, called the area around Big Stone I “a cancer hot spot, thanks to one of the dirtiest coal-burning plants in the nation.”

Tribal members fear an additional plant will increase the health risks, said Big Coulee District Council Representative Norma Perko, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate. “Prevailing southeasterly winds bring the pollution right here.”

In response to a question about elevated cancer rates, Dan Sharp, Otter Tail spokesperson, noted that the old plant’s emissions would be routed through the new one’s more modern stacks, thus reducing the pollution of Big Stone I. Because of the projected decrease, the utilities have asked to be exempted from applying for an air-quality permit.

Steuve called the reduction “meaningless,” saying that Big Stone I’s releases of dangerous substances — sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, dioxins, hydrochloric acid, lead, mercury compounds and more — are so high any decrease would be negligible. In any case, the contaminants don’t simply disappear when they’re filtered out, according to Sierra Club attorney George E. Hays. Instead, they end up in a landfill.

In South Dakota, the process of burying toxins need only comply with what appear to be lax regulations. Sharp described “vinyl or plastic-lined pits” into which residues of coal burning are placed. “Over the life of the existing plant, millions of tons of waste have been buried,” said Steuve. “That’s with no setbacks from water sources like Big Stone Lake, the Minnesota River and the Veblen aquifer.”

Other byproducts of the coal burning are transferred to “private individuals [in] Big Stone City, South Dakota,” according to Big Stone I’s mandated Toxic Release Inventory. “There’s no other information about what happens after that,” said Steuve. “The trail ends there.”

 “It’s been a long battle against Big Stone II,” said Thompson, who was cautiously optimistic about the Minnesota PUC meeting. “So many individuals and groups — Clean Water Action, Sierra Club, Honor the Earth, Clean Up Our River Environment, Plains Justice — have fought a good fight.” 

UPDATE: The Big Stone II project was scrapped in 2009. 

Text and photo c. Stephanie Woodard.

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