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SUPERIOR, Wis. - A much-delayed and controversial plan to build a gas-fired power plant in this city of 27,000 now faces opposition from local leaders who previously supported it.

The $700 million project is contentious for its location — bordering a Lake Superior estuary and an Anishinaabe mass grave — and for its potential harm to the environment, property values and health of area residents. The Nemadji Trail Energy Center (NTEC) is already seven years in the making and has cleared many regulatory and legal hurdles, with construction expected to start this spring.

But now at least four members of the 10-member City Council oppose the project with several undecided. Superior Mayor Jim Paine is also now against it, noting state and federal scrutiny of the project has been lax.

"I don't see any way that this site was ever appropriate for this," Paine said, referencing its unstable ground and nearby Anishinaabe cemetery of nearly 200 bodies. The bodies were relocated from Wisconsin Point, a peninsula a few miles east, more than a century ago to make way for ore docks that were never built.

"The trauma of moving these graves for an industrial project, only to have a new industrial project built pretty much on top of them is just really offensive," he said.

He's been skeptical of the project since he took office in 2017, but didn't oppose it until more recently, in speaking with environmental groups and after a Catholic church transferred the Nemadji River-area cemetery land to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in 2022. (The city transferred Wisconsin Point burial grounds to the band at the same time.) With the band now owning that land, he saw the project differently.

NTEC is touted as a job creator and is intended as a back-up power provider to support expansion of wind and solar energy plants. It would be owned by Minnesota Power, which will build and operate the plant, Wisconsin's Dairyland Power Cooperative and North Dakota-based Basin Electric Power Cooperative. Area labor unions have rallied for the 625-megawatt facility in recent weeks as the owners prepare to face the city's Plan Commission for necessary permits.

Its most recent federal ruling includes a finding of no significant impact on air quality, land and other resources by the USDA Rural Utilities Service (RUS). But a couple of legal rulings, a federal wetland permit and a major federal loan Dairyland expects to apply for still stand in its way before construction can begin.

Environmental and ratepayer groups, as well as some area tribes, have opposed the plant since it was first proposed, saying the threat of climate change is too great to build new fossil-fuel infrastructure.

Minnesota Power and the other owners see natural gas as a way to support the transition to clean energy and away from coal, with coal-fired plants retiring faster than replacements can connect, threatening grid reliability. Minnesota Power expects to retire its two Iron Range-area coal-fired power plants by 2030 and 2035.

The St. Francis Cemetery in Superior borders a proposed gas-fired power plant. The tree line in the background is part of the border.
The St. Francis Cemetery in Superior borders a proposed gas-fired power plant. The tree line in the background is part of the border.

Jana Hollingsworth

'I don't trust it'

Minnesota Power already owned the 26-acre site picked for the plant for its proximity to Cenovus oil refinery and an Enbridge oil terminal, in an industrial area with existing electrical and natural gas infrastructure.

But a residential neighborhood is about a half-mile away, and in nearby Allouez Bay, restoration of wild rice beds and marsh bird habitat is underway.

Along the Nemadji River, land is prone to erosion. Minnesota Power plans to build a sheet pile wall to stabilize the area, which is upstream from the cemetery. The latest RUS review says the bordering Nemadji and St. Francis cemeteries won't be disturbed and "no direct impacts to tribes are anticipated."

Bob Miller is a descendant of an Ojibwe chief whose body was moved to the St. Francis Cemetery. For years, bones from the mass grave have resurfaced, some washed into the river as its red clay-laden banks wore away.

"One of our biggest fears is new work on this gas plant they want to build will raise the level of the river even higher," further endangering the buried, Miller said at a recent community panel.

Jill Harnstrom lives near the proposed plant. She has leukemia and worries about increased pollution in a city that already has an oil refinery. It's not worth the potential effects to Lake Superior and community health, she said, "and I don't trust it."

This month, the Environmental Protection Agency updated national air quality standards to reduce the level of air pollution called particulate matter — a dangerous industrial soot that can cause heart attacks, asthma and chronic health conditions. The NTEC project would bring the county's emissions to just under the threshold of the new standard, effectively limiting other city development that would need to apply for an air-quality permit, Paine said.

"The idea that this is good for our economy is just flatly false," he added.

The RUS review says the facility would increase greenhouse gas emissions in its immediate vicinity but would reduce emissions in the region by displacing coal generation.

But gas-fired plants emit methane, environmentalists argue, so are not a better solution.

"Methane has about 80 times the warming potential of [carbon dioxide] over 20 years," said Brett Korte, an attorney with the environmental group Clean Wisconsin, which has been fighting the plant for years.

NTEC owners say the plant would be built to perform on 30% hydrogen, an alternative to methane, when the technology is ready.

The plant won't draw water from the Nemadji River or discharge into it, said Jennifer Cady, vice president of legislative and regulatory affairs for Minnesota Power.

Minnesota Power sold 30% of its stake to Basin in 2021 because of effects from the pandemic, Cady said. It now has just 20% ownership. The company declined to comment on rumors about a potential sale of parent company Allete and how that might affect the project.

'A game changer'

The project is backed by several labor unions, including the Northern Wisconsin Building and Construction Trades Council. The plant would employ 25 people filling five roles for the 24/7 work, and generate up to 350 construction jobs, Cady said.

"The project is a game changer for northern Wisconsin," union president Kyle Bukovich said in a news release. "The skilled trade jobs NTEC will create will provide stability and prosperity for families throughout the community."

Since the project was introduced, several city officials had a change of heart. City Councilor Jenny Van Sickle, who represents the neighborhood where the plant would be built, is among them. She was first alarmed when Minnesota Power reduced its ownership level and again when the Environmental Protection Agency voiced concerns. After the city of Superior transferred cemetery land to the Fond du Lac band, she knew she couldn't support the project, she said.

Not convinced the plant will generate wealth for Superior, she spent weeks digging into plans and assessments. She argues that federal and state reviews that studied effects to land, water and air have been inadequate, especially when it comes to tribal impact.

"Cities can clear the way, or they can create a lot of bureaucracy," Van Sickle said. "More times than not we are too eager to clear the way."