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Big Stone sinking?

Judges' decision encourages opponents of coal-fired electric plant

AGENCY, S.D. - On May 9, two Minnesota administrative law judges recommended against building transmission lines to carry power to their state from a proposed coal-burning electric power plant, Big Stone II. Otter Tail Power Company wishes to build the facility in South Dakota, just southeast of Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate's Lake Traverse Reservation. The new plant would be right next to an existing coal-fired one, Big Stone I, which began operating in 1975.

''I commend the judges,'' said Office of Environmental Protection Administrator Myrna Thompson, Sisseton-Wahpeton. ''Rather than focusing on immediate financial gain, they demonstrated a vision for future generations and the environment.''

On June 3, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission was expected to make a final determination on the transmission lines, without which BSII would not be built; an announcement is expected June 5.

Though Thompson was pleased about the decision and hoped the PUC would be influenced by it, she noted that Native people had been left out of the planning all along. The absence of mandated government-to-government, federal-tribal consultations on the project meant that the tribes' concerns were ignored, she said.

''They're forgetting the impacts on us. Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate is a treaty tribe. Where is the Interior Department when it comes to protecting our health and resources?''

Cancer, asthma and respiratory diseases are widespread on the reservation and in the counties surrounding the plant, according to IHS and National Cancer Institute data. Children under 10 are especially prone to asthma, Thompson said, while many older people also have illnesses such as bronchitis and lung cancer.

Local cancer rates are not just high; they are also rising, according to NCI figures. Mary Jo Stueve, program coordinator of the national environmental group Clean Water Action, called the area around BSI ''a cancer hot spot, thanks to one of the dirtiest coal-burning plants in the nation.''

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Tribal members fear an additional plant will increase the health risks, said Big Coulee District Council Representative Norma Perko, Sisseton-Wahpeton: ''Prevailing southeasterly winds bring the pollution right here.''

In response to a question about elevated cancer rates, Dan Sharp, Otter Tail spokesman, noted that the old plant's emissions would be routed through the new one's more modern stacks, thus reducing the pollution of BSI. Because of the projected decrease, the utilities have asked to be exempted from applying for an air-quality permit.

Stueve called the reduction ''meaningless,'' saying that BSI's releases of dangerous substances - sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, dioxins, hydrochloric acid, lead, mercury compounds and more - are so high any decrease would be negligible.

In any case, the contaminants don't simply disappear when they're filtered out, according to Sierra Club attorney George Hays. Instead, they end up in a landfill.

In South Dakota, the process of burying toxins needs only comply with what appear to be lax regulations. Sharp described ''vinyl or plastic-lined pits'' into which residues from coal burning are placed.

''Over the life of the existing plant, millions of tons of waste have been buried,'' Stueve said. ''That's with no setbacks from water sources like Big Stone Lake, the Minnesota River and the Veblen aquifer.''

Other byproducts of the coal burning are transferred to ''private individuals [in] Big Stone City, South Dakota,'' according to BSI's mandated toxic release inventory.

''There's no other information about what happens after that,'' Stueve said. ''The trail ends there.''

''It's been a long battle against Big Stone II,'' Thompson said. ''So many individuals and groups - Clean Water Action, Sierra Club, Honor the Earth, Clean Up the River Environment, Plains Justice - have fought a good fight.''