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Board approves public hearings on power line
Decision is a step forward for project, but will limit testimony on impact of proposed Duluth-Wausau line
By Martiga Lohn and Steve Kuchera, Duluth News-Tribune staff writers, 21 April 2000

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Environmental Quality Board voted unanimously Thursday to go ahead with public hearings on a high-voltage transmission line proposed to begin in Hermantown -- but will limit testimony to the line's possible environmental and public health effects in Minnesota. The decision clears the way for public hearings to be held this summer. The hearings, which were to begin in March, have been on hold while the board considered a request by project opponents to allow testimony on potential impacts beyond Minnesota.

Minnesota Power has requested an exemption from certain state requirements for route designation and construction permits for 12 miles of proposed transmission line. The 345-kilovolt line would follow an existing 115-kilovolt line from the Arrowhead substation in Hermantown to the St. Louis River near Gary-New Duluth.

The company's request has attracted a lot of attention, since it would be the first step in a 250-mile line from Duluth to Wausau, Wis. With limited testimony Thursday, the 15-member Environmental Quality Board spent almost two hours discussing how much latitude to allow at public hearings on Minnesota Power's exemption request.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner Karen Studders said the purpose of a public hearing is to gather information before making a decision. Pollution issues -- such as increased mercury depositions caused by power lines -- don't follow state borders, she added.

``Some people want to minimize that this is only a 12-mile line,'' Studders said. ``The whole policy behind the Power Plant Siting Act is to allow all persons to have a dialogue. All we're doing is deciding who can take part in that dialogue.... We need to allow information in so we can make a well-informed, good decision for the state of Minnesota.'' But Sen. Bob Lessard, DFL-International Falls, testified for limited public testimony.

Lessard said he became aware of the proposed transmission line after several people lobbied him against it at an awards banquet where he was being honored in February. ``I would hope that this group would just use plain and common horse sense,'' Lessard said. ``If we're going to have to require (Environmental Impact Statements) on 12 miles of line,... we're going to be wasting a lot of time on insignificant things.'' Lessard also said he heard conflicting information on whether Indian nations in Canada oppose the proposed line.

Electricity for the line could come in part from hydroelectric plants in Manitoba. The Cross Lake Cree Nation, who say their way of life has been destroyed by dams, are opposed to the line as well as plans to expand the province's hydroelectric generation.

But Douglas Mackenzie, a lawyer representing the Split Lake Cree First Nation in Manitoba, said that nation doesn't want public testimony on impacts outside Minnesota, but asked to be given official status if testimony were expanded. The board didn't address his request. Several board members said they wanted to avoid an ``unruly'' public hearing process.

``This could be quite an expedition if we just open up the entire system back to its sources,'' said Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg. ``This review should be limited to impacts in Minnesota. Anything beyond that gets us into all kinds of other issues.... For me that would seem intrusive and patronizing.'' Acting Commerce Commissioner Jim Bernstein recused himself from voting, saying that he had been involved in discussions about the power line as deputy public service commissioner.

Under the resolution passed by the Environmental Quality Board, public testimony can address how the power line inside and outside Minnesota would affect Minnesotans. But testifiers must show that the impact comes from the power line and not some other source.

Power line opponents hoped that the board would reject Minnesota Power's exemption request or allow testimony on the power line's effect on people and the environment in Wisconsin and Canada. Still, opponents hailed the board's decision as favorable.

``We're in a better position now to put on the record the true impact of the project,'' said George Crocker, executive director of the North American Water Office, who argued in February for expanded public testimony. ``We're better able to raise the issues that need to be raised.'' ``Pollution doesn't stop at the borders,'' said Pam McGillivray, an attorney representing Save Our Unique Lands. ``We'll still be able to show the same impacts of the entire line on Minnesota.''

Minnesota Power was also happy with the board's decision. ``We're pleased with the EQB decision, and we look forward to continuing with the process,'' Minnesota Power Vice President of Corporate Relations Jim Roberts said.

The judge in charge of running the hearings will likely soon hold a pre-hearing conference with the groups that will be allowed to testify at the hearings, MEQB senior planner Bob Cupit said after the meeting. ``I think she's prepared to move fairly quickly on this,'' he said. ``We're happy to have a decision. We're ready to move forward.''

Cupit doesn't expect the hearings could begin until after June 1. Several dozen citizens, mostly from Wisconsin, attended the Environmental Quality Board meeting Thursday. Under the decision, they won't be able to testify about the transmission line in Minnesota.

``It will change the way my farm operates,'' said Linda Ceylor, a dairy farmer and SOUL member who lives in Catawba, Wis., along the proposed power line. ``The more I read about it, the more I realize it's not a benefit to my community.''

In Wisconsin, the state's Public Service Commission is working on a draft environmental impact statement on the proposed line. The statement should be finished later this spring.