A Native American tribe in northern Wisconsin has joined environmental groups urging state regulators to reject plans for a $700 million natural gas generating plant in Superior.
The Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians says the Nemadji Trail Energy Center would damage local wetlands, contribute to climate change and perpetuate the practice of hydraulic fracking.
“Ultimately, the Band’s opposition is necessary to protect natural and cultural resources for the generations to come,” said Linda Nguyen, environmental director for the band.
The Public Service Commission is considering an application from La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative and a subsidiary of Minnesota Power to build the 625-megawatt plant, which would sell power into the wholesale market.
The utilities say the plant is needed to allow them to move away from coal-fired generation and that it would support the addition of more clean energy sources like wind and solar.
Superior’s mayor and a bipartisan handful of western Wisconsin legislators have come out in support of the project.
Asserting its authority granted by 19th-century treaties in which the tribe ceded its lands to the United States government, the Red Cliff band argues it must protect natural resources in those territories.
In comments submitted last week, the band says the plant will draw nearly 3 million gallons of water each day from the Lake Superior basin while destroying anywhere from 19 to more than 68 acres of wetlands that are essential to filtering water and mitigating floods.
“Between 2012 and 2018 this region has seen three 100-year or 500-year storms,” the comments state. “Destroying the wetland could lead to more significant flooding in the area.”
An estimated 2.7 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, the band argues, will also contribute to the climate crisis that has led to more extreme storms.
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The band has just over 7,000 enrolled members, including almost 1,800 living on the reservation or in Bayfield County.
The Sierra Club is encouraging members to ask for a more thorough environmental review, saying the study conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources doesn’t address the plant’s impact on local water supplies and the upstream impacts of fracked gas, nor does it adequately explore alternatives.
Nemadji Trail would be the second new fossil fuel plant approved since 2008. Alliant Energy is expected to complete work next year on a $700 million plant in Beloit.
The PSC has until February to rule on the application. Public hearings are scheduled for October. Written comments are being accepted until Monday.
Despite appeals from environmental groups, the PSC has declined to consider the climate impacts of the plant’s carbon emissions, saying it doesn’t have legal purview over environmental impacts of a project that isn’t funded by ratepayers and meets the state’s air quality standards.
Natural gas plants produce only about half as much carbon dioxide as traditional coal-fired generators, but far more potent heat-trapping gases are frequently released during the mining and transport of gas.
A coalition of environmental groups including the Sierra Club has appealed the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s decision last year authorizing Minnesota Power to build the plant despite an administrative law judge’s recommendation that it was not needed.
Minnesota regulators previously denied a request to conduct an environmental assessment, saying that would be up to Wisconsin.
The Red Cliff band also questions the accuracy of the DNR’s environmental study, which did not identify any native American archaeological sites near the proposed project area.
“We are extremely concerned about the cultural proficiency, or lack thereof, of the surveyor(s) given the well documented history of the Gichigami Anishinaabe (Lake Superior Ojibwe) living in this area,” tribal chairman Richard Peterson wrote.
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. The original version incorrectly stated the size of a proposed natural gas plant in Superior. The Nemadji Trail Energy Center would have a capacity of 625 megawatts.]