Prairie Island nuclear waste in limbo

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ST. PAUL, Minn. - A filibuster and other delaying tactics stopped legislation that would extend time limits for nuclear waste storage on Prairie Island and also put in jeopardy an agreement between the Prairie Island Sioux Community and Xcel Energy.

An agreement reached by the Prairie Island Sioux Community and Xcel to extend the above ground cask storage until the facility's license was to be renewed in 2013 also offered the tribe $2.3 million per year for 10 years and lesser amounts in subsequent years.

The legislature failed to pass budget reduction measures for the state and Gov. Tim Pawlenty ordered lawmakers back for a special session that may go until all budgetary matters are resolved. The Prairie Island nuclear waste issue is also on the table and expected to be completed.

The House passed a bill that would have extended the life of the storage, thus allowing Xcel to continue operation of the nuclear facility. The Senate on the other hand, threw cold water on its bill when Sen. Ellen Anderson, D-St. Paul, teamed up with Sandy Pappas, D-St. Paul, and managed to run out the clock on the regular session of the legislature before it came to a vote.

The two bills are different, but the Prairie Island Sioux Community doesn't care which bill is passed as long as one extends the life of the cask storage at the site. It could mean millions of dollars for the Prairie Island Community.

Should no bill end up on the governor's desk this session, the agreement between the community and Xcel Energy would be broken. The tribe could then revert to 1994 legislation that requires Xcel Energy to not add more waste to the storage, thus forcing the facility to shut down by 2007. The facility generates 20 percent of the energy used in the state.

The two bills are not that far apart in basic fundamentals in consideration of an extension of the storage timeline. They both allow for federal license renewal of the facility, so the community is hopeful that legislation will be passed and head for the governor's desk, said Jake Reint, spokesman for the Prairie Island Community.

"The tribe is a little frustrated and disappointed so far, but is still hopeful that the bill will be addressed in the special session. Our agreement depends on something passing this year," Reint said.

As of May 21, no vote had been scheduled in the special session, which could run until all business left over from the regular session is dealt with. It's up to the legislature at this point.

The Prairie Island Community does not care about the written details of the legislation or how the renewable energy provisions are worked out. Renewable energy sources are defined a little differently on both sides. The House side includes coal as a renewable energy source for a facility in northern Minnesota that lawmakers claim satisfies a legislator from the Iron Range. It also states that the burning of old tires and trash is considered renewable resources for the purpose of generating energy.

The House version also allows the Public Utilities Commission to approve the federal license renewal of the facility and the legislature would have trouble overriding that approval.

The Senate version requires more money be spent by Xcel on renewable energy sources and legislative approval upon license renewal.

The Prairie Island Community has been wrestling with nuclear waste storage on their tiny reservation for 30 years. The struggle came to a head when the tribal council made an agreement with Xcel Energy allowing the storage to increase from 17 above ground casks located in an area adjacent to the reservation in exchange for funding to be used for health and infrastructure benefits on Prairie Island.

Community members voted on the agreement twice. The first time not enough votes were cast to make up a legal percentage, but the second time the agreement was approved.