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Final Big Stone arguments delivered

ST. PAUL -- Utility companies claim their plan to build two power lines in Minnesota is good for consumers and the environment, but opponents of the Big Stone II power plant project say utility customers, the air and water will suffer.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission heard those arguments Tuesday as it prepares to decide, probably on Thursday, whether five utility firms can build transmission lines in western Minnesota that would distribute electricity from the proposed coal plant just across the Minnesota border in Big Stone City, S.D.

The utilities behind the project and environmental groups opposing it on Tuesday went before the five-member commission, which is considering the permit just weeks after administrative judges urged the request be denied. Despite that conclusion, utility representatives told the commission the Big Stone II plant and the two Minnesota transmission lines need to go forward.

Todd Guerrero, the utilities' lead attorney, said if the project is blocked, they could be forced to build plants fueled by natural gas. The cost of that fuel source is volatile and increasing, he said.

"We know that doing nothing is not an option," Guerrero said, adding there is no dispute transmission line upgrades are needed.

The commission should follow the two-judge panel decision and reject the transmission request, said Janette Brimmer, legal director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. The intent of state law is to favor energy conservation and use of renewable energy sources when considering the source and distribution of new power, she said.

The utilities' analyses concluding a coal plant is the most cost-effective option for new electric generation largely ignores rising plant construction costs and future charges for emitting pollutants, opponents said.

"Essentially, the Big Stone II applicants want the commission to sign a blank check for their project ... drawn from the account of Minnesota citizens and businesses," Brimmer said.

Commissioners are expected to deliberate and decide Thursday on the transmission lines - three years after the permit first was sought.

The two lines would move enough electricity to serve at least 40,000 households, said Tim Rogelstad, a manager for Fergus Falls-based Otter Tail Power Co., the lead utility in the project.

The first line would stretch from the Big Stone II plant to Morris, Minn., passing through Ortonville and Johnson. A second line would run from the coal plant to Canby, Minn., and on to Granite Falls. From Granite Falls and Morris electricity would be fed to the regional grid.

Otter Tail Power is accompanied in the project by Missouri River Energy Services, Montana-Dakota Utilities Co., Heartland Consumers Power District and Central Minnesota Municipal Power Agency.

While the case deals with electric transmission lines mostly in western Minnesota, Big Stone II supporters and opponents came from around the state - and beyond - to lobby the commission.

The hearing took place before a crowd of more than 100 project supporters and opponents; commissioners opened a second room to accommodate an overflow crowd.

Some protested the project outside the commission's downtown St. Paul office Tuesday morning. Jordan Montgomery, 17, was among 30 Montevideo-area high school students who showed up to oppose the project on environmental grounds.

Montgomery said he is concerned the project could harm the Minnesota River and emit pollutants into the atmosphere. He said it would be puzzling if the commission went against the administrative judges' recommendation.

Big Stone II supporters say the environment would benefit because the new plant would burn cleaner and pollutants from an existing plant would be reduced.

Mayor Bill Hendricks of Nashwauk, in northeastern Minnesota, said the state has invested $66 million in development of the Minnesota Steel plant on the Iron Range. That new steel-making facility - and other budding Iron Range projects - will require "quality power" that is constantly available, he said. That rules out wind-generated electricity, leaving the Big Stone II plant as one of few options, he said.

"I look at that investment and I think, 'Boy, I hope we don't shut them down,'" Hendricks told commissioners.

Scott Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.