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Environmentalists Hail Pushback Of South Dakota Power Plant

January 24, 2009

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) filed objections to an air quality permit a South Dakota state agency had granted for a large coal-fired power plant, a move environmentalists hailed as the beginning of a new era on coal powered plants.

“This is a signal that the Obama administration is taking a much harder look at coal power from the previous administration,” Darrell Gerber, a program coordinator for the group Clean Water Action, told the New York Times.

“EPA is signaling that it is back to enforcing long-standing legal requirements fairly and consistently nationwide,” said Bruce Nilles, head of the Sierra Club’s initiative to block coal power plants, told Reuters.

Otter Tail Power Company and four other utilities had proposed the 580-megawatt plant for the Milbank area in northeastern South Dakota, near the border with Minnesota.  It would serve roughly 400,000 homes, with about half of the plant’s power sent to Minnesota. 

However, the EPA said Friday that the timing of its objection letter, sent to South Dakota officials on Thursday, was not related to the new president.

“It would be fair to say” that the letter would have also been sent under the Bush administration, said Carl Daly, chief of the EPA’s Region 8 air permit unit.

Dusty Johnson, chairman of the Public Utilities Commission, said the agency’s ruling was not a final rejection of the plant, and that South Dakota’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources had 90 days to correct deficiencies in the proposal.   

“We fully expect that the state will be able to address our concerns in the 90 days we have given them,” said Daly, of the EPA’s Denver office.

Once those concerns are addressed to the EPA’s satisfaction, construction of the $1.3 billion Big Stone II plant may begin.

Nevertheless, Nilles declared victory, saying the EPA’s objections would effectively end of the project because it would increase costs, making the plant too expensive to build.

President Obama has said he supports new technology for coal-burning power plants that capture their CO2 emissions.  However, such advanced technology is not yet commercially viable.

Coal plants current generate half of the electricity supply of the United States.  After a slowdown in construction of new plants during the 1980s and 1990s, President George W. Bush’s administration pushed for new construction.   As a result, utilities moved forward with plans for nearly 200 plants beginning in 2002.

According to Nilles, 14 were constructed or are being built, although coal advocates say the number is 20, while 80 have been canceled, primarily for financial or state regulatory reasons. Another 80 plants remain in the pipeline, Nilles said.

Environmentalists claim the Big Stone II plant would emit 4 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.  CO2 accounts for 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists believe cause global warming.

“As the first major coal plant decision by the EPA since President Obama took office, this decision signals that the dozens of other coal plant proposals currently in permitting processes nationwide will face a new level of federal scrutiny,” the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action said jointly on Friday.

Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission unanimously approved transmission power lines for Big Stone II on January 15, a move widely believed to have cleared the way for construction of the new plant to begin.

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