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Environmental group puts Minnesota River back on 'most endangered' list

MONTEVIDEO -- An environmental group opposed to the proposed $1.6 billion Big Stone II coal-fired plant has put the Minnesota River on its list of the 10 Most Endangered Rivers in America.

American Rivers, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., announced Wednesday that it was placing the Minnesota River on its 2008 list due to what it called the threats posed by the power plant. It lists two main threats:

- Damage to downstream aquatic life due to water drawdown on Big Stone Lake, the river's source, to supply cooling water for the coal plant. The plant can withdraw up to 3.2 billion gallons of water per year from the lake, or the equivalent of 20 percent of the lake's volume.

- Annual mercury emissions of 80 to 90 pounds that will continue for the expected, 50-year life of the plant. It represents 4,000 pounds of mercury that could be emitted.

American River's attention to the Minnesota River is timed to call attention to the Big Stone II project as Minnesota regulators decide on permits for the power lines needed for the plant.

An administrative law judge is expected to recommend soon whether or not to issue a certificate of need for the lines. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is expected to vote in May on the certificate.

The fact that American Rivers is calling attention to the issue also reflects the seriousness of the water and mercury issues posed by the coal-fired plant, according to Patrick Moore, director Clean Up our River Environment, a grassroots environmental organization based in Montevideo.

"It supports our assertions that these threats are for real,'' said Moore.

CURE decided in 2005 to raise objections to the Big Stone II project due to concerns over how the water drawdown and mercury emissions could harm the Minnesota River basin, he said.

While there is international concern about carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants, Moore said anglers and other sportsmen in the basin are particularly concerned about the harm from the water drawdown and mercury contamination.

Moore said he questions data from supporters of the Big Stone II project stating that the water drawdown of Big Stone Lake will have limited impacts downstream.

There is concern about the potential harm within the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said Moore, noting that the department has expressed the concern in letters to South Dakota officials.

He is hoping that the recent American River's listing will bring the Big Stone project to the forefront and prompt state officials to act.

CURE is asking that the Minnesota-South Dakota Boundary Waters Commission be convened to discuss the issues related to Big Stone II water use.

Moore said he hopes the recent attention will encourage Gov. Tim Pawlenty to press his counterpart in South Dakota. Moore said the fact that South Dakota issued water permits without convening the commission is a violation of the agreement made between the two states in the 1930s.

CURE has also urged that instead of building Big Stone II, power utilities tap the potential of wind and other renewable energy sources by encouraging projects scattered throughout the region.

American Rivers first placed the Minnesota River on its list of the nation's 10 Most Endangered Rivers in 1995 due to concerns about agricultural runoff and other so-called non-point pollutants, referring to pollutants coming off the land.

"Point" pollutants are those that can be traced to a specific location such as an industrial facility or treatment plant.