A newly announced agreement requiring the partners in the Big Stone II power project to greatly reduce mercury emissions and to offset carbon dioxide emissions has not allayed the concerns of a Montevideo group opposing the project.

"It really falls short of where most residents in Minnesota are,'' said Duane Ninneman of the agreement's environmental requirements. Ninneman, the renewable energy consultant with Clean Up our River Environment in Montevideo, said the local citizen's organization continues to favor the development of renewable energy instead of coal-fired generation.

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A group of seven utilities led by Otter Tail Power Company are proposing to build the 630-megawatt coal-fired power plant near Big Stone City, S.D.

It will provide power to Detroit Lakes, Moorhead and areas served by Otter Tail Power Co. among other areas in the region.

The agreement announced Friday by Big Stone II and the Minnesota Department of Commerce requires that the project owners offset 100 percent of the plant's carbon dioxide emissions attributable to Minnesota's customers.

"We shouldn't confuse the issue of carbon offsets with carbon reduction,'' Ninneman said. He said Gov. Tim Pawlenty and others in the state have indicated support for reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 15 percent by 2015.

The Big Stone II project will add 3,500,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year to the atmosphere.

Big Stone II will be required to purchasing credits on climate exchange markets to offset the carbon. The companies can also pay to their own escrow funds as part of the offset agreement.

These steps do nothing to reduce the amount of the gasses responsible for global warming, Ninneman said.

CURE believes the agreement allows the companies to offset some of the carbon emissions by paying into their own escrow accounts. He described it as allowing the companies to pay a fee to themselves for polluting. "A shell game,'' he said.

He lauded one portion of the agreement: It requires that the partners reduce toxic mercury emissions from the Big Stone I and Big Stone II plants by 90 percent.

The plants were projected to emit 189 pounds of mercury in the first year of combined operations. If the agreement actually requires a reduction by 90 percent to 18 or 19 pounds annually, "that would be a real achievement,'' Ninneman said.

CURE remains "very disappointed'' with how the agreement allows the draw down of water from Big Stone Lake. Together, the Big Stone I and Big Stone II plants will be permitted to annually appropriate more water from the lake- the headwaters region of the Minnesota River- than all of the ethanol plants currently operating in Minnesota use, Ninneman said. He said the permits allow Big Stone I to appropriate 2.6 billion gallons and Big Stone II to appropriate 3.2 billion gallons of water each year.

CURE is also skeptical of the agreement's commitment by the owners to build or procure at least 180 megawatts of locally-owned, renewable C-BED projects, according to Ninneman. There is no assurance in the agreement that those projects will be supported in the upper Minnesota River Valley counties where the environmental consequences of the project will be felt the most, he said.

(Tom Cherveny writes for the West Central Tribune of Willmar, a Forum Communications Co. newspaper)