Minnesota Court of Appeals Affirms Power Plant’s Mercury Reduction Plan
Posted on January 5, 2015
On November 3, 2014, the Minnesota Court of Appeals affirmed the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission’s (PUC) approval of Minnesota Power’s mercury-emissions-reduction plan for Boswell Unit 4, the largest coal-fired electric generator at Minnesota Power’s Boswell Energy Center in Cohasset, Minnesota. In re Minnesota Power’s Petitions for Approval of its Boswell Energy Center Unit 4 Environmental Retrofit Project, Boswell 4 Environmental Improvement Rider, 2014 WL 5507039 (Minn. Ct. App. 2014).
As required by Minn. Stat. 216B.682, Minnesota Power, in 2012, submitted a mercury-emissions-reduction plan for Boswell 4 to the PUC. The four-year plan involves retrofitting Boswell 4 with a semi-dry flue-gas desulfurization system, fabric filter, and powder-activated carbon-injection system, and, according to Minnesota Power, would reduce the plant’s mercury emissions by 90%. In its submission to the PUC, Minnesota Power described alternative mercury-reduction approaches, including replacing the entire unit with natural gas-fired generation, but it did not evaluate the environmental effects of a natural-gas replacement. Under Minn. Stat. 216B.684, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), prior to the PUC’s approval of a utility’s mercury-reduction plan, must evaluate the plan and consider, among other things, “the environmental and public health benefits of each option proposed or considered by the utility.” In this case, MPCA’s reviewed Minnesota Power’s retrofit plan, and on MPCA’s recommendation, the PUC approved the plan.
Environmental groups–Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Izaak Walton League of America—Midwest Office, Fresh Energy, and Sierra Club–challenged the PUC’s approval on the grounds that the natural-gas-replacement alternative that Minnesota Power mentioned in its petition is an “option” that the MPCA was required to evaluate. Without a full environmental analysis of this option, the groups argued, MPUC’s approval of the plan was arbitrary and capricious. The court disagreed. In affirming the PUC, the court concluded that legislative intent underlying the relevant statutes in chapter 216B was that mercury reduction at coal-fired plants should be accomplished by installing pollution-control equipment, not by replacing or repowering the plants themselves. Although switching to cleaner fuel source might be a viable pollution-control measure, the court held, it constituted an “alternative to regulation,” not an “option” in a mercury-emissions-reduction plan that the MPCA is required to evaluate.