The $700 million natural gas power plant proposed for Superior could negatively impact nearby groundwater, according to Wisconsin regulators.

Duluth-based Minnesota Power and La Crosse, Wis.-based Dairyland Power Cooperative are looking to build the 625-megawatt power plant, coined the Nemadji Trail Energy Center, between Enbridge Energy's Superior Terminal and the Nemadji River in Superior.

But according to the final environmental impact statement released last month and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources testimony filed with Public Service Commission of Wisconsin — the state regulators that need to approve the power plant — the project could negatively affect the groundwater beneath it by using too much of the water.

The plant would require vast amounts of well water, which burning natural gas would heat into steam to turn generators.

Ian Anderson, a DNR hydrologist testified that the state agency could not determine the project “would not have a significant detrimental effect on the quantity” of the groundwater.

“Based on available data, it appears that the operation of the proposed (Nemadji) wells is likely to deplete groundwater from the sand and gravel seam beneath the Nemadji River site,” Anderson said. Anderson said that could be reevaluated if the companies can provide information proving the wells won’t have a detrimental effect on groundwater quality.

The DNR’s concerns about well water was first reported by Wisconsin Public Radio.

The project’s final environmental impact statement released last month by the DNR and PCS also highlighted the DNR’s concerns.

“In addition, DNR is concerned that the aquifer will not yield the required volumes of water, based on review of nearby off-site well construction reports,” the report said.

Julie Pierce, vice president of strategy and planning at Minnesota Power, told the News Tribune that it plans on providing the DNR with more information so the agency can do more analysis.

“We want to be very careful that we work with the DNR and we understand all those impacts,” Pierce said. “Nobody wants to get this right more than us.”

Pierce said that if the plant can’t use groundwater, it still has options. The plant could tie into the city of Superior’s water system or, as a last resort, pull from Lake Superior, Pierce said.

Pierce noted the testimony and environmental impact statement about groundwater concerns are for the PSC’s review of the project, not for a water permit from the DNR, which is being reviewed separately.

According to Wisconsin law, the PSC must grant the certificate of convenience and necessity to the project if the facility "satisfies the reasonable needs of the public for an adequate supply of electric energy," its "design and location or route is in the public interest" and "will not have undue adverse impact on other environmental values."

Environmental impact

Although the PSC won’t consider the impacts of climate change when weighing the need for the natural gas plant, the DNR and PSC outlined the impact the natural gas plant would have on contributing greenhouse gases in the project’s final environmental impact statement.

The report said the plant would mainly emit carbon dioxide and methane when burning natural gas, noting methane is “one of the most potent greenhouse gases.”

It also outlined the “indirect environmental impacts” of natural gas extraction, which requires fracking, a process that injects water, chemicals and sand deep into the ground to release natural gas.

The report notes fracking can lead to “public health implications” downstream or in groundwater and the “potential for seismic events like small earthquakes.”

"Such impacts are associated with the hydraulic fracturing method of gas extraction, a process which requires large amounts of water and the use of chemicals that could pose a health concern if exposed to the public,” the report said.

But an increase in demand for natural gas and fracking will also impact Wisconsin. Much of the sand used in fracking is mined in the state.

“The most desired sand to utilize in fracking is found in western Wisconsin because of its geological history of sea coverage,” the report said. “Several frac sand mines have developed on lands around the state. These mines require the removal of ‘overburden’ including the soils and plants above the sand. The land from which the sand has been removed is also removed from any further farm or forest production.”

Minnesota Power has maintained that it needs "renewable-enabling" sources of power like natural gas to balance the grid when solar and wind power are affected by weather.

Pierce said Minnesota Power expects to 50% of its power will be generated by renewable resources in 2021, up from 30% today.

“This facility will help us do that. Its overall footprint is very positive in terms of how the electric service and reliability will be served here in the region,” Pierce said.

In 2005, just 5% of the company’s power came from renewables, but Minnesota Power has retired or refueled seven of its nine coal units and invested more in wind and solar.

“I think we respectfully understand the concerns that folks have, but as we look at the broader context of energy transformation, this is an important component of how we get to cleaner energy futures,” Pierce said.

Aaron Klemz, spokesperson for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, credited Minnesota Power for making progress towards more renewable energy, but said the company shouldn’t be replacing coal with a different fossil fuel.

“We’re standing at this precipice right now, the climate crisis,” Klemz said. “And we think that the last thing you would want to do is to lock ourselves into decades of additional greenhouse gas pollution at this moment.”

The project was approved by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission in a 3-2 vote last year, but environmental groups, including MCEA, challenged the approval because it didn't include an environmental review of the project.

Oral argument is set for Thursday in St. Paul. The court then has 90 days to rule on the case.

Hearings set for Superior

The Public Service Commission will hold three hearings on the proposed Nemadji Trail Energy Center later this month, all at the Belgian Club, at 3931 E. Second St. in Superior.

The public can give testimony at the hearings on Monday, Oct. 28 at 6 p.m. and Tuesday, Oct. 29 at 2 p.m.

A hearing for parties to the proceeding is set for Tuesday, Oct. 29 at 10 a.m.