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Board approves new South Dakota power plant permits

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) -- The state Board of Minerals and Environment voted unanimously Thursday to approve air quality permits for the proposed Big Stone II coal-fired power plant in northeast South Dakota, but a lawyer for opponents of the project said a court appeal is likely.

The new 500-megawatt power plant, to be built near the existing Big Stone plant, is backed by five utility companies serving more than 1 million people in Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and Iowa.

Costs for the entire project are now estimated at about $1.8 billion, said Dan Sharp, communications manager for Big Stone II.

The project now needs only one more regulatory permit: Minnesota approval for 112 miles of transmission lines, necessary to the project, on the South Dakota-Minnesota border, Sharp said. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission likely will decide on the transmission line permit in January, he said.

The air quality permits approved by the South Dakota board involved an operating permit for the existing Big Stone plant and a construction permit for Big Stone II. The board held eight days of hearings in August and September.

Harry Johnson, a lawyer representing the project, said evidence has demonstrated that when Big Stone I and Big Stone II are operating, technical improvements will allow the two plants to generate less pollution than the existing plant does.

Sulfur dioxide emissions will drop substantially, mercury emissions will decrease and nitrous oxide emissions will not rise, said Johnson.

"We know No. 1 that the Big Stone II project is good for the environment and it's good for the energy in this area," Johnson told the South Dakota board. "The emissions from Big Stone I and Big Stone II will actually improve the air quality."

But William Moore, a lawyer representing The Sierra Club and Clean Water Action, urged the board to reject the permits because the documents do not comply with laws and regulations. Further proceedings should be held to fix legal problems, he said.

Moore said the environmental groups were not there to delay the project or somehow impose unreasonable barriers to building coal-fired power plants; they simply oppose building a new power plant that fails to comply with the law. Moore predicted a court will overturn the South Dakota permits if they are flawed.

Opponents argue that the coal-fired plant will cause pollution. They support wind, solar and other clean energy sources.

Sharp said construction on Big Stone II can start about a year after all permits are approved.