Excelsior Energy has announced a “major water quality improvement program” whereby they pledge to eliminate discharge of cooling water by a process called Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD). The announcement also describes upgrading the Coleraine/Bovey/Taconite wastewater treatment facility (WWTF) in order to improve water quality in Trout Lake and the Mississippi River watershed. The press release is an interesting development, but not entirely unexpected. Excelsior is unable to obtain water discharge permits with their current proposal. Completely eliminating water discharge is the only way they can proceed. If Excelsior Energy really had intentions of being environmental stewards and wanted to “mitigate environmental impacts,” measures such as ZLD and carbon dioxide capture and sequestration would have been in the plan from the beginning.
Senator Saxhaug was quoted in Excelsior’s press release as saying “Excelsior didn’t have to do this to get licenses, but they have agreed to do all they could to demonstrate they intend to be good environmental stewards. This is a very promising development.”
Obviously Senator Saxhaug has been influenced by Excelsior’s spin, and apparently he hasn’t been following this issue closely. Excelsior has fought hard to avoid eliminating water discharge and has repeatedly shown us that the focus is on dollars, not environmental stewardship. ZLD is extremely expensive to implement, and will mean a loss of efficiency with regard to power output. A major reason Excelsior changed their preferred site to the West Range was because the East Range site required ZLD due to the more stringent mercury criteria of the Lake Superior watershed.
Excelsior's Joint Permit Application clearly shows that under the original plan, the Mesaba Energy plant would cause the Canisteo Mine Pit to exceed water quality standards for hardness and dissolved solids. Mercury levels in the pit would rise sharply, the lake trout fishery would be ruined, and the polluted Canisteo water would put local municipal drinking aquifers at risk of contamination. Water was also proposed to be discharged into the already impaired Swan River system. CAMP has advocated for elimination of water discharge all along, so we see this announcement as a positive development.
The problems with this announcement are that:
1. The ZLD plan is vague. This “plan” as proposed is not adequate or specific, similar to but not as far-fetched as their “plan” for carbon capture and sequestration
2. A ZLD agreement with “local officials” is of no significance. Right now the Joint Permit Application and Draft Environmental Impact Statement mention West Site ZLD as a last option with little detail. Unless the proposal is on record in the Final EIS, it carries no weight as local officials have no say as to water discharge permitting. Excelsior needs to show the permitting agency that their water discharge plan is viable. Complete elimination of discharge water is the only plan that potentially has a chance to succeed.
3. ZLD does not necessarily mean that Canisteo would remain open to recreational use. Its surface water levels will need to be maintained within a narrow range to ensure safe recreation and a viable ongoing trout fishery.
4. The WWTF can not handle the wastewater from Mesaba without major upgrades. This is also something that Excelsior knows they need to address, and the plan as written in the press release may get them off the hook quite inexpensively.
This proposal could be a way to minimize Excelsior’s contribution to the required upgrade. The plan specifies $250,000 to strengthen grant funding (for a $1 million dollar piece of equipment) for 2009, and says “those funds would be conditioned on the start of construction of Mesaba One.” Tom Micheletti is quoted as saying they will contribute up to half a million dollars to upgrade the WWTF. This is a company that has no buyer for its power, and can’t even make its interest payment on IRR loans.
This announcement is important in that Excelsior appears to be finally dealing with the reality of discharge water permitting, and if the plant is ever funded and built, there would be less environmental impact. Excelsior’s newest water discharge plan is not about environmental stewardship; it’s a necessity. Excelsior is desperately fighting to stay alive, and now we're seeing major concessions so that the project might remain viable.