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Judges consider steel plant impact

ST. PAUL - The future of Minnesota's largest-ever industrial development is in the hands of three state Appeals Court judges.

Environmental groups want the judges to order state Department of Natural Resources officials to take a closer look at how Essar Steel Minnesota's planned $1.65 billion taconite mine and steel plant would affect global warming.

The project near Nashwauk, on northeast Minnesota's Iron Range, is due to begin producing steel slabs by 2014. It will employ 500 people and state officials have compared its economic impact to Bloomington's Mall of America. Up to 2,000 workers will be needed to construct the facilities.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, supported by Fresh Energy, contend the DNR did not adequately consider how much greenhouse gas the new operation would produce.

The DNR said it did all that it could to consider the global warming impact produced by the gas before it approved an environmental impact statement that opened the door to state and federal construction permits.

"The agency always could have done something more," Tom Overton, an assistant attorney general representing DNR, told the three appeals judges during a brief Thursday hearing. But, he added, there could be no end to such a study.

Scott Strand, representing the environmentalists, told the judges that they should order DNR to look into global warming.

"A large environmental impact was ignored all together," he said.

Thaddeus Lightfoot, Essar's attorney, told the judges that they do not have legal authority to revoke state and federal permits already issued to open the mine and build the steel plant.

In an interview, Lightfoot said that the court case, which the environmental group appealed after an Itasca County District Court ruling favored Essar Steel, has not slowed construction work. However, if the Appeals Court overturns permits, construction may slow or stop.

India-based Essar plans to reopen the Butler taconite mine near Nashwauk, which is estimated to have enough iron to keep the nearby steel-making plant running for at least 100 years. Essar has bought 8,000 acres of land in the area and plans to buy or obtain easements on more until it controls about 20,000 acres.

Contractors are preparing the site for construction. An iron ore pellet plan could be in production by 2011, with steel being produced three years later. It would be the first American facility where mining and steel making are at the same site.

Thursday's hearing followed an Oct. 15, 2008, Itasca County court ruling that the DNR followed the law when it drew up the environmental impact statement, a key document needed before permits are issued to construct a plant. The environmental center appealed the ruling.

The environmental group claimed the DNR's environmental impact statement did not take into account the added electricity that would be needed to run the mining and steel-making operation. Strand said that electricity most likely would come from coal-fired power plants; coal is among the fuels that many scientists say leads to global warming.

Overton said that "DNR took a hard look at the issues" and did the best it could to include global warming impacts in its 1,000-page report. "They did use the best infop will use natural gas, a cleaner alternative to coal. And it could buy electricity from Canadian hydroelectric generators, he added.

While judges wondered how the DNR was supposed to figure the global warming impact, Strand said the agency needs "to do their best projection of what science will allow."

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.