By Isiah Holmes, Wisconsin Examiner

Years before breaking ground, a proposed $700 million methane gas plant — envisioned to straddle the Nemadji River in Superior, Wisconsin — has polarized local communities. Whereas some tout the Nemadji Trail Energy Center (NTEC) as a generator of jobs and power, others argue that its operation would undermine efforts to preserve nearby wetlands, honor tribal treaty relationships, and advance Wisconsin’s climate policy goals.

According to a quarterly progress report submitted to the Public Service Commission (PSC) in January, construction has not yet begun but NTEC is planned to begin commercial operation in March 2027. Several utility companies have a stake in NTEC, including La Crosse-based Dairyland Power and Duluth-based Minnesota Power, which will build and operate the plant, and the North Dakota Basin Electric Power Cooperative. The group of companies, however, will have to navigate new roadblocks after recent votes by the city of Superior’s Plan Commission and Common Council to preserve areas nearby the planned site for NTEC.

A supplemental analysis released in 2022 by the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) found that the plant would release 2.7 million tons of carbon emissions on a yearly basis. By August that year, WPR reports, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that the analysis “did not fully quantify or adequately disclose” the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, and called on regulators to analyze upstream, construction-related, and indirect emissions that  may come from the project. The proposed site of the Nemadji Trail Energy Center (NTEC), (Photo courtesy of Jenny Van Sickle)

The proposed site is roughly 300 feet from a shoreline bend of the Nemadji River. Unique habitats including wetlands and floodplain forests populate the river’s length. Draining from Lake Superior, the river supports numerous species of plants, animals, and fungi, some of which are considered rare. Last year, according to the PSC quarterly report, rare plant species were located near some of NTEC’s proposed access roads. Reroutes were then issued in order to avoid negative impacts on the species.

Due to degraded habitats, the Nemadji River has been listed as impaired. Restoration efforts, supported by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and city of Superior have focused on shoreline dunes, nesting habitats, waterways, and wild rice. Canoeing, as well as public fishing and camping, are popular activities on the land where NTEC would be built.

The area is also a repository of tribal history. If completed, NTEC would operate approximately 500 feet from a burial site containing the remains of dozens of Lake Superior Objibwe people. Over a century ago in 1918, a steel company exhumed 198 ancestral Objibwe graves, and then re-buried them along the northern bank of the Nemadji river. Through a cooperative effort between Superior’s city council and tribal communities, control over the burial site was returned to the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in 2022.

In September, the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa issued a 42-page letter to the RUS blasting the lack of communication with the tribe, and disregard for indigenous sacred sites near NTEC’s planned site. The Band, referring to themselves in their own language as the Gaa-Miskwaabikaang, said the RUS “failed to meaningfully engage” with the tribe on the project.

The regulator didn’t notify the Band when a National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) review was conducted, the Band wrote in the letter.  A separate environmental review conducted in 2020 — which found the plant would have no significant impact —  didn’t reach the tribe until May 2021, the letter stated. By not including the tribe in its decision-making process, the RUS hadn’t lived up to its federal obligation to consult with the Gaa-Miskwaabikaang as a sovereign government with treaty rights in the proposed power plant site, the tribe argued.

City of Superior officials grapple over plant’s fate

The area’s ecosystems, rich yet also vulnerable and degraded, and its complex history have fueled growing misgivings about NTEC among residents, some of whom have formed a vocal resistance against its construction. As the first week of April passed, so too did a decision by the Superior City Council and Plan Commission not to hold another public hearing, moving towards denying requests to make way for the 625 megawatt NTEC plant by vacating streets, rezoning public land, and amending plans for Superior’s future.

During a common council meeting on April 3, Mayor Jim Paine explained what ultimately shaped the 4-2 decision by the city’s planning commission. Paine, who chairs the commission and joined the majority vote, noted a variety of concerns about whether the plan for the plant is in the city’s best interest. After weighing how the city already uses the affected  parcels of land, Paine said, “It is most valuable in its undeveloped state because it is extraordinarily risky to develop a site like that. The risk of erosion is very high, it has happened on similar sites in the area.” Paine added, “It provides extraordinary benefits as an undeveloped wetland. It is adjacent to a river and I generally believe, and I believe my opinion is shared by many members of the community, that waterfront — especially undeveloped waterfront — is best left undeveloped for public use.”

The city’s comprehensive plan for Superior’s future out to 2040, Paine said, was also adopted unanimously, and recently, by local government. “A number of community members and a unanimous council decided on a vision for the community,” said Paine, adding that what utility companies asked of the city would alter that vision. Superior Mayor Jim Paine (City of Superior photo)

Of utmost importance to Paine was the question of whether the city should vacate public access to the streets sought by the utility companies. “Those are public spaces,” said Paine. “The public has the right to access these wilderness spaces on the river. And while we don’t have an ‘official’ use for them right now, we are in the process of making a number of improvements to public rights of way. And even acquiring more to do things like trails, and improving access to wilderness and nature. So I argued that their best use was as they are.”

Paine also invoked a strong public interest in not changing laws absent a compelling reason, and that “I didn’t believe that that bar had been cleared.”

Council member Brent Fennessey pushed back against Paine, saying the mayor was needlessly attaching support for NTEC with whether another public hearing should be held. “Tonight we’re not voting on whether each individual councilor supports NTEC, we’re not voting on whether each individual council opposes NTEC,” said Fennessey. “All we’re voting on is if we should have a public hearing or not. And, to my knowledge, I don’t think we have ever denied an applicant for a rezone request, an alley vacation, a street vacation, an option for a public hearing.” Fennessey argued that, “at a minimum, the applicant here has a right to due process and what you’re suggesting is eliminating that right to due processes.”

Council members also said that during the planning commission meeting, groups for and against the plant provided input. Others pointed to the success elected candidates who opposed NTEC had in recent spring elections, or expressed their opposition to setting new precedents in local laws. A minority of members expressed support for a new public hearing focused on rezoning and public access requests.

A powder keg issue 

The divisions over NTEC on the council reflect those in the community. Councilor Jenny Van Sickle said she had heard criticism from some residents for opposing the plant. People told her, “all these organizations, all these agencies approved this, what’s your problem?’” Van Sickle, who was elected in 2017, stressed that her own constituents did not share the apparent enthusiasm for NTEC. “I wasn’t on like, some ‘woke’ trip about energy policy, my residents were reaching out concern,” she said during the Common Council meeting. “What was I supposed to do? Lie? Comfort them? My job is to represent them. And it took me months, and months to work up the courage to do that.”

She recalled the first meeting involving NTEC, not long after Van Sickle took office. Residents who wanted to speak against the plant walked in to see hundreds of neighbors enthusiastically calling for the plant, “and walked right out.” Van Sickle said, “Over the course of these proceedings, there have been times when they didn’t want to go to the podium and say their address. They didn’t want their homes and their families targeted.” Van Sickle told Wisconsin Examiner that “getting elected is like drinking from a fire hose.”

As time passed, the more Van Sickle looked into the plans for NTEC, the more questions she had and the more issues she noticed. She argues that the plant’s application did not identify state-protected Areas of Special Natural Resource Interest (ASNRI), which require additional review to ensure the quality of wetlands and their protection. Questions germinated around why the PSC and DNR, through desktop and aerial reviews, designated the nearby wetlands as lower quality when the city’s own Environmental Regulatory Program — which reviewed over 5,500 of Superior’s wetlands – found more than 25 acres of high-quality and special feature wetlands in 2017. Councilor Brent Fennessey (City of Superior photo)

In 2021, after years of promoting NTEC’s benefits to local officials and labor unions, Allete, a division of Minnesota Power — one of the plant’s principal owners — sold off 30% off its stake for the facility. The $20 million deal brought in a third company, the North Dakota-based Basin Electric Power Cooperative. Van Sickle feels the selling off of shares by the plant’s initial owners — whose representatives had spent years positioning the methane gas company as not only a job saver, but as one of the only practical futures for energy — was a big red flag.

NTEC’s local influence was felt in the weeks leading up to the city’s planning commission meeting and finally Thursday’s common council hearing. On March 29, Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin issued a statement in favor of the plant. “Reliable and affordable energy is what powers the American dream,” said the organization’s state director Megan Novak. “As the premier grassroots organization, we’ve heard from Wisconsinites in every corner of the state that this American dream is slipping away for so many. We need solutions and projects like NTEC that will not only bring affordable and reliable energy to the region, but also create economic opportunity, jobs and community growth for Wisconsin. When we get government out of the way and prioritize policies that create a competitive economy, we know that prosperity is possible.”

Brett Korte, staff attorney at Clean Wisconsin, questions rhetoric around how needed NTEC is. He points out that the plant’s applicants “never had to show a need for the project in front of the regulators.” Korte told Wisconsin Examiner that this is one point where there appears to be some confusion in public discourse. “It is absolutely true that the applicants did not have to show a need for the facility in front of the Public Service Commission,” said Korte. He wonders what the real plan for energy to be produced at the plant is, with some private entities with a stake in NTEC becoming involved in establishing data centers, and getting into crypto currency. “But the idea that these utilities need it for their current customers just hasn’t been shown, the applicants haven’t been required to show it in any regulatory proceedings.”

Power company has no plans of surrender

Van Sickle told Wisconsin Examiner that after the planning commission opted not to approve the zoning requests, “the company told us that they had legal remedies to local resistance.” She added that “they were at both meetings – at the city council meeting and the planning commission meeting. I guess I don’t know what their plan is, but I will say the hill’s getting pretty steep.” Advertisements and messaging for NTEC have also flooded the city’s airwaves, the councilwoman said. Van Sickle emphasized that the company has not received federal permits and approval, nor has it consulted with the tribes.

The DNR’s web page tracking NTEC’s permits shows that NTEC has not received a wastewater pretreatment system plan and that permits for high capacity wells, water use and water loss are all on hold by the utility company. It’s unknown at this time whether an incidental take authorization, necessary when threatened or endangered species are located near a planned site, will be needed.

Van Sickle also told Wisconsin Examiner that the plant hasn’t received a consistency determination, which ensures a project does not have competing interests with federal funding, state projects or other issues. Using the restoration of local rice as an example, Van Sickle asks whether it would be consistent to build a gas plant where wild rice had been restored. “I would say not,” said Van Sickle, highlighting that, “the entire site was flagged as a good candidate for [wetland] restoration.”

It’s an increasingly relevant factor, with Gov. Tony Evers signing into law Act 111 last month. The law calls for the establishment of a fee program which collects funds to help restore, enhance, create, or preserve wetlands and other water resources. The program must be approved by the U.S. Army corps of engineers, and wetlands which benefit from the funds may be open to the public for hunting, fishing trapping, cross-country skiing, hiking, and other activities. Further, state agencies must ensure that “there is no net loss of public access to wetlands,” according to the Act . City of Superior Councilwoman Jenny Van Sickle (City of Superior photo)

Van Sickle said that the state would need to hold a public hearing regarding NTEC’s consistency determination. “And if you watched the council meeting, you would know that they specifically asked the state not to open a public hearing on this certificate,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. Besides wetlands, the proposed gas plant appears to be out of sync with the state’s climate and renewable energy goals under the Evers administration. Budgets proposed by the governor have called for investments in clean water, renewable energy, and transitioning away from fossil fuels. Korte highlights that analysis by regulators and the utility itself don’t seem to take into account the shifting policy objectives of today, and how that might shape what the energy grid looks like tomorrow.

“When you think about the science and the policy that’s all saying we need to get off fossil fuels by 2050, it just doesn’t make any sense that you would build on a plan of this magnitude and somehow say that you are advancing the transition away from fossil fuels,” Korte told Wisconsin Examiner. He also said that the utilities involved with the project did not look closely at renewable alternatives in their PSC application, such as battery energy storage systems proposed by Clean Wisconsin and the Sierra Club. “The idea that they didn’t even consider batteries as an option is kind of disturbing,” said Korte. “And there’s also great jobs in renewable energy, and if utilities want to make an investment in Superior, it makes a lot more sense to me to make an investment in a renewable option that would advance all the climate goals and, ultimately, be around much longer than fossil fuel. There’s no way that we can be burning this stuff in 20-25 years. It’s just not possible.”

What might be next

Following the city of Superior Common Council vote, what’s over the horizon isn’t so clear.

Justin Chasco, an attorney for the utility pushing NTEC, said the plant can be built without any zoning changes. Chasco referred to  the PSC’s decision to approve the project, suggesting the city is biting off more than it can chew. “Wisconsin law is crystal clear that when that determination has been made, the city has no power to undo it,” said Chasco, WPR reports. Paine signaled the city is prepared to duke it out in court, however. The Sierra Club has challenged the NTEC’s application for a DNR air permit. Other permits are still pending and Basin Electric, one of the stakeholders in the company, is actively engaged in litigation which could see it close power plants.

Ultimately, Van Sickle hopes that the U.S. Army corps of engineers to will more closely scrutinize the plans for NTEC, and deny its permits. “They’re racing against the clock,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. “Time’s not on their side. On neither side.”

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