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Environmental groups challenge approval of Dairyland Power gas plant in Superior
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Environmental groups challenge approval of Dairyland Power gas plant in Superior

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Two environmental groups are challenging the recent approval of a $700 million natural gas plant in Superior, saying the environmental impacts are too great.

Clean Wisconsin and the Sierra Club filed a petition Friday in Dane County Circuit Court seeking review of the Public Service Commission’s decision to authorize construction of the Nemadji Trail Energy Center, a 625-megawatt joint venture of Dairyland Power Cooperative and Minnesota Power.

“This project poses significant environmental threats, including depletion of groundwater, loss of wetlands, and increased carbon dioxide emissions,” said Katie Nekola, general counsel for Clean Wisconsin. “If Wisconsin intends to meet Gov. Evers’ carbon reduction goals, we cannot afford to build more fossil fuel power plants.”

Katie Nekola

Nekola

The groups contend the commission made errors of fact, law, procedure and discretion in determining the plans met state guidelines. In particular, they allege evidence of environmental impacts showed the design was not in the public interest and the environmental review was deficient.

Construction of the plant would destroy almost 20 acres of wetlands along the flood-prone Nemadji River, and the site is steeply sloped, prompting concerns about runoff and erosion. The state Department of Natural Resources said the aquifer may not be able to support the 5 million gallons of groundwater that would need to be pumped each day to operate the plant.

The PSC declined to consider the impact of the 2.7 million tons of carbon dioxide it’s expected to produce each year.

The groups are asking the court to overturn the approval or send the case back to the PSC for reconsideration. They are also seeking to block construction until the case is decided.

Dairyland spokeswoman Katie Thomson said the company was still reviewing the petition Friday, but that the PSC decision followed a lengthy review process. PSC spokesman Matt Sweeney declined to comment, citing agency policy on pending litigation.

The PSC voted 2-1 in January to approve construction of the plant, which the utilities say will allow them to move away from coal-fired generation by supporting the addition of intermittent sources such as wind and solar.

Dairyland has since announced plans to close its 345-megawatt coal-fired plant in Genoa.

“Dairyland’s commitment to diversifying and moving to a low-carbon future is evident through our actions,” Thomson said.

Opponents argued there were cheaper ways to meet customer needs, including renewable energy, battery storage and energy efficiency programs.

“Climate change is a global crisis, but the causes and impacts can be seen right here in Wisconsin,” said Matt Early of the Sierra Club. “Allowing utilities to swap one fossil fuel for another is not only shortsighted for our environment, it will leave Wisconsinites saddled with the costs of an expensive new power plant for decades to come.”

PSC Chairwoman Rebecca Valcq cast the lone vote against the plant based on concerns about the environmental impact to the two proposed sites. Commissioner Mike Huebsch, who cast one of the two votes in favor of the project, has since left the PSC. Evers has not yet nominated a replacement.

The project faces another hurdle in Minnesota, where an appeals court revoked Minnesota Power’s authorization to invest in the plant, ruling that state’s Public Utilities Commission must consider environmental consequences even though the plant is to be located in Wisconsin.

The appeals court said construction and operation of the plant will affect the surrounding environment, “most notably through the large quantities of carbon dioxide that the plant will emit.”

Minnesota Power has asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to review what they call a “dramatic expansion of Minnesota regulatory jurisdiction.”

The court has not said whether it will hear that case.

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