LaDuke: Just because you can, doesn't mean you should

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A power company now has the opportunity to pit Native against Native, thanks to a handful of former tribal chairmen. Firetail Energy Systems (represented by former Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribal Chairman William Schumacher) and the Inter-Tribal Economic Alliance (represented by J.R. Crawford, former tribal chair at Sisseton-Wahpeton) along with Multi-Tribal Energy Co. and CEFCO LLC of Texas just became players in a very controversial proposal for a coal-fired power plant near the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota reservation in South Dakota. As a result, Otter Tail Power Co., the electric utility building the plant, is having a heyday.

The proposed plant, called Big Stone II, would put a 500-megawatt power plant upwind from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate community and use billions of gallons of SWO water annually to feed the Minnesota power grid. The SWO tribe and other indigenous interests, as well as numerous environmental groups, have contested the proposal, which has also met with hefty opposition in Minnesota - a state that has a renewable energy mandate, not a coal mandate. Schumacher, Crawford and their associates have entered this decisive fray on the future of energy production by advocating a continued reliance on coal.

The ITEA and Firetail Energy associates have partnered with technology and business interests to market what is called ''clean'' coal, known also as ''carbon capture.'' The alleged techno-fix proposed by these energy entities and their partner, CEFCO, has some dubious underlying suggestions. There is, for instance, a suggestion that the technology proposed will create agricultural benefits.

''The CEFCO Process removes 99.9 percent of all pollutants undefined, and turns those pollutants from an operational expense [reducing pollution] into a profit center by producing fertilizers for agriculture, polyvinyl chlorides [PVC piping] and other product components,'' explained proponent Schumacher.

As he indicates, ''clean'' coal technology still puts lethal pollutants somewhere. Let me know how much of those ''profit center-producing fertilizers'' we actually need to be added to what is already becoming a very toxic agricultural landscape, and I'll be sure to add them to my own organic vegetable gardens. And by the way, polyvinyl chloride is a persistent organic pollutant and a carcinogen, probably not something to add to the food chain or piping.

Along with ignoring that poisons from coal-fired power plants are still poisons - no matter what product they are morphed into - the advocates of CEFCO also ignore the dirty coal extraction process.

According to Peggy Peters of Sisseton, who actively opposes mining, ''This is not proven technology and it is not only the using of coal, oil or other fuel that is the environmental issue, but the acquiring of it as well. We should not view the emissions of a coal-powered plant as the only and driving issue, but rather the entire process.''

This is to say that there is no such thing as clean coal, as there is no clean coal strip mining. The coal proposed to be used in the BSII power plant would most likely originate in the Powder River Basin. Ironically, that may occur on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, which for 30 years has opposed coal strip mining and the adverse impacts of coal extraction on their land and aquifer.

Up until the entrance of the ex-tribal chairman entities, Otter Tail had been losing ground. The Minnesota-based company had lost several utility partners and reduced the size of the plant from 1,200 megawatts to 500 megawatts as markets for coal have dried up in this climate-challenged world. The project was hanging on the ropes.

Otter Tail is now using Firetail Energy and ITEA to breathe new life into its proposal, pointing to the handful of Natives representing these companies as evidence of Native support for the disputed BSII plant.

For example, after Firetail Energy and its associates met with representatives of BSII, Otter Tail was able to dispel environmental justice concerns about the plant at a hometown public forum.

''During the Q&A session [at a public forum], Ward Uggerud [a spokesman for Otter Tail] indicated that there was interest in the Native community about buying into BSII,'' said Chris Kling of Otter Tail.

When word came back to SWO that the Native community was interested in becoming equity partners in BSII, confusion erupted.

Schumacher attempted to explain the confusion away in an e-mail to tribal members, stating that, ''By purchasing an interest in an electric energy producing facility [especially coal], tribes would have a place at every official, unofficial, community or industry table that involves production, transmission or use of energy. Should a project such as Big Stone II, with the inclusion of the CEFCO Process to ensure the project meets the most stringent clean energy standards, be developed, Firetail would endorse and promote tribal ownership of such facilities. And, as such, we would definitely approach the SWO and all other tribes with an offer of tribal ownership of the energy facilities.''

Schumacher said no offer had been made, although according to Otter Tail, one certainly had been forwarded.

''It sounds like an agreement to discuss an agreement ... that involved SWO, without our prior consent or discussion on our end,'' Peters noted.

At the same public forum, Otter Tail stated that it was unaware of any tribal opposition to BSII.

When asked to clarify, Otter Tail information specialist Chris Kling stated that ''Ward's saying that he is unaware of any negative response from the Native American community to Big Stone II meant that no tribe has been a formal party intervening in the permitting processes, even though they've had opportunity to do so.''

Otter Tail's observation is contrary to the position forwarded by both the SWO (which submitted comments in the process regarding use of their water) and testimony by Honor the Earth, a national Native organization.

Myrna Thompson, SWO environmental director, was outraged by these statements.

''It's not right that they are denying us the right to be heard and legitimized ... I do believe that Ward Uggerud needs to be informed that he made a false statement,'' she said.

In the interim, SWO expects a full consultation process - a process that has not been forthcoming.

One of the most significant principles of environmental justice is not to site a project that causes a disproportionate impact in a disenfranchised community of color. BSII is a pretty clear example of environmental racism. The tribe has never been consulted and has never had a voice in this project from its beginning; and now, when trying to raise its voice, it's being shut down by the claim that some Indians support it.

In short, here's a thought for the ex-tribal chairmen to consider: Just because you can, doesn't mean you should, especially if it's for your own personal corporate gain. Just because you can act as an individual and make a profit for yourself does not mean that you should, particularly when it involves using someone else's water and adding mercury to someone else's lakes.

That being said, here are some hard facts.

BSII would generate 4.7 million tons of carbon dioxide annually - the equivalent of 700,000 more cars in the state of South Dakota. According to global warming expert Ezra D. Hausman, ''My opinion is that the emissions of over 4.7 million tons of CO2 per year from this proposed facility would cause material, adverse and irreversible damage to the environment, especially considering its expected lifetime of 50 years or more and the slow recovery time for atmospheric CO2.''

This additional tonnage would increase South Dakota's current emissions by 34 percent. Currently, the state produces 13.2 million tons of carbon dioxide.

BSII plans project the use of 3.2 billion gallons of water annually. The company proposes to build a 450-acre private reservoir and fill it from Big Stone Lake, which feeds the Minnesota River. Diverting so much water could affect the river and Marsh and Lac qui Parle lakes. There are alternatives, which are the green jobs for this millennium, not the environmentally dubious jobs of the last millennium. Those would be jobs in wind generation.

The SWO is located at the northern end of the Buffalo Ridge geographic feature, one of the most prime wind zones in the region. The tribe is already looking into wind generation.

Otter Tail and some influential ex-tribal chairmen would do better to look at a green economy, not a carbon-producing, water-hogging proposal. Even Minnesota's deputy commissioner of energy and telecommunications at the Department of Commerce believes that ''it throws into question the need for another power plant, as it's proposed.''

In the end, ethics should be above private profits in a Native community, and I believe that ex-tribal chairmen should keep the long term interests of their people and the Earth in their hearts and actions.

Winona LaDuke, an enrolled member of the Mississippi Band of White Earth Indians, is the executive director of Honor the Earth and founding director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project. She has worked for three decades on Native energy and food sovereignty issues.