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Sherburne County Plant

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This article is part of the Coal Issues portal on SourceWatch, a project of CoalSwarm and the Center for Media and Democracy. See here for help on adding material to CoalSwarm.

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Sherburne County Plant is a coal-fired power station owned and operated by Xcel Energy near Becker, Minnesota. The Becker Sherco station is Xcel’s largest fossil-fueled plant, burning 30,000 tons of coal — three trainloads — every day and more than 9 million tons a year.[1]

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Plant Data

  • Owner: Northern States Power Company
  • Parent Company: Xcel Energy
  • Plant Nameplate Capacity: 2,129 MW
  • Units and In-Service Dates: 660 MW (1976), 660 MW (1977), 809 MW (1987)
  • Location: 13999 Industrial Blvd., Becker, MN 55308
  • GPS Coordinates: 45.381209, -93.896634
  • Coal Consumption:
  • Coal Source:
  • Number of Employees:

2010: Xcel waits on installing pollution controls

Sherco is Xcel’s largest fossil-fueled plant, burning 30,000 tons of coal every day and more than 9 million tons a year. Units 1 and 2 were built in the 1970s and use wet scrubber systems for emissions control, while Unit 3 was built in 1987 and has a dry scrubber. In 2007, Xcel proposed increasing the generating capacity in all three of Sherco’s units and installing new emission-control technology to reduce the amount of mercury and other pollutants released into the air. Xcel installed mercury controls on Unit 3 in 2009, but also withdrew the proposals for upgrades to units 1 and 2 due to the struggling economy and the uncertainty of future federal regulations.[1]

In August 2010, Xcel Energy reaffirmed its decision not to pursue nearly $1 billion in upgrades to two older units at its coal-fired power plant in Becker, pending a host of new federal regulations expected to target emissions from large plants like Sherco. Xcel is instead planning a less costly $39 million "power boost" to the newest of the plant’s three units. In the short term, the decision not to upgrade units 1 and 2 means the state’s largest power plant will continue to emit tons of greenhouse gases and mercury each year. But environmental groups are hopeful it means Xcel will decide it is no longer wise to invest more money in an aging coal plant, and will look to phase out the older Sherco units or convert them to another fuel source.[1]

2013: units to continue

In 2012 a coalition of nonprofit groups sued U.S. EPA in hopes of getting tougher emissions standards placed on Sherburne County Plant Units 1 and 2. In 2013, Xcel filed a “life cycle management study” with Minnesota regulators examining alternatives to continuing to operate Sherco Units 1 and 2. The study included risk-benefit analyses for converting the units to natural gas at a cost of $1.7 billion or retiring them altogether. Ultimately, Xcel decided that neither alternative option made economic sense in the near term and decided it would continue to operate Sherco’s two older units under current scenarios.[2]

Unit 3 restarted

Unit 3 of the Sherburne County Plant went back online in October 2013, after being severely damaged in November 2011 during the testing of safety equipment. The test was intended to automatically slow the steam turbine if it began spinning too fast, and briefly pushed the turbine’s rotors to more than 3,600 rounds per minute, eventually resulting in equipment failure and fire. After $200 million in repairs, Xcel said it was ready to return the unit to service.[2]

Emissions Data

  • 2006 CO2 Emissions: 18,003,648 tons [3]
  • 2006 SO2 Emissions: 24,742 tons [4]
  • 2006 NOx Emissions: 25,459 tons [5]
  • 2005 Mercury Emissions: 958 lb. [6]

Mercury

The 2012 NRDC report, Poisoning the Great Lakes: 25 Coal-fired Power Plants Responsible for Half the Region's Mercury Pollution, found that 25 coal-fired power plants account for more than half of the mercury pollution emitted by the total of 144 electricity generation facilities in the Great Lakes region, and that almost 90 percent of the toxic emissions could be eliminated with available technologies. Over 13,000 pounds of mercury was emitted by the 144 coal plants into the air in 2010.

The coal-fired power plants with the highest mercury emissions are: Shawville Generating Station (Clearfield County, PA); Monroe Power Plant (Monroe County, MI); Homer City Generating Station (Indiana County, PA); Cardinal Plant (Jefferson County, OH); and Sherburne County Plant (Sherburne County, MN). A dozen power plants in Ohio and Indiana -- owned in whole or part by American Electric Power -- accounted for 19 percent of all mercury emitted in 2010 in the region.

Toxic Waste Data [7]

  • Chromium Waste: 56,671 pounds
    • Air Release: 421 pounds
    • Land Release (Landfill/Sludge/Reuse): 56,250 pounds
  • Dioxin Waste: 1.85 grams
    • Air Release: 1.85 grams
  • Lead Waste: 60,914.2 pounds
    • Air Release: 380.8 pounds
    • Land Release (Landfill/Sludge/Reuse): 60,533.4 pounds
  • Nickel Waste: 74,185 pounds
    • Air Release: 605 pounds
    • Land Release (Landfill/Sludge/Reuse): 73,580 pounds

Death and disease attributable to fine particle pollution from Sherburne County Plant

In 2010, Abt Associates issued a study commissioned by the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, quantifying the deaths and other health effects attributable to fine particle pollution from coal-fired power plants.[8] Fine particle pollution consists of a complex mixture of soot, heavy metals, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides. Among these particles, the most dangerous are those less than 2.5 microns in diameter, which are so tiny that they can evade the lung's natural defenses, enter the bloodstream, and be transported to vital organs. Impacts are especially severe among the elderly, children, and those with respiratory disease. The study found that over 13,000 deaths and tens of thousands of cases of chronic bronchitis, acute bronchitis, asthma, congestive heart failure, acute myocardial infarction, dysrhythmia, ischemic heart disease, chronic lung disease, and pneumonia each year are attributable to fine particle pollution from U.S. coal plant emissions. These deaths and illnesses are major examples of coal's external costs, i.e. uncompensated harms inflicted upon the public at large. Low-income and minority populations are disproportionately impacted as well, due to the tendency of companies to avoid locating power plants upwind of affluent communities. To monetize the health impact of fine particle pollution from each coal plant, Abt assigned a value of $7,300,000 to each 2010 mortality, based on a range of government and private studies. Valuations of illnesses ranged from $52 for an asthma episode to $440,000 for a case of chronic bronchitis.[9]

Table 1: Death and disease attributable to fine particle pollution from Sherburne County Plant

Type of Impact Annual Incidence Valuation
Deaths 92 $670,000,000
Heart attacks 150 $16,000,000
Asthma attacks 1,600 $83,000
Hospital admissions 69 $1,600,000
Chronic bronchitis 59 $26,000,000
Asthma ER visits 100 $38,000

Source: "Find Your Risk from Power Plant Pollution," Clean Air Task Force interactive table, accessed February 2011

Sherburne ranked 2nd on list of most polluting power plants in terms of coal waste

In January 2009, Sue Sturgis of the Institute of Southern Studies compiled a list of the 100 most polluting coal plants in the United States in terms of coal combustion waste (CCW) stored in surface impoundments like the one involved in the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal ash spill.[10] The data came from the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) for 2006, the most recent year available.[11]

Sherburne County Plant ranked number 2 on the list, with 4,721,862 pounds of coal combustion waste released to surface impoundments in 2006.[10]

Drinking water contaminated with hexavalent chromium from coal may cause cancer

A report released by EarthJustice and the Sierra Club in early February 2011 stated that there are many health threats associated a toxic cancer-causing chemical found in coal ash waste called hexavalent chromium. The report specifically cited 29 sites in 17 states where the contamination was found. The information was gathered from existing EPA data on coal ash and included locations in Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Massachusetts, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virgina and Wisconsin. In Minnesota, the Sherburne County Plant in Becker was reported as having high levels of chromium seeping into groundwater.[12]

As a press release about the report read:

Hexavalent chromium first made headlines after Erin Brockovich sued Pacific Gas & Electric because of poisoned drinking water from hexavalent chromium. Now new information indicates that the chemical has readily leaked from coal ash sites across the U.S. This is likely the tip of the iceberg because most coal ash dump sites are not adequately monitored.[13]

Accidents and Negligence

  • November 5, 1986 [14]
    • A helicopter crashed while installing 4,600-pound roof vents at Sherburne County generating facility.
    • The chopper developed an engine problem while trying to unload a vent. The pilot was killed and was the only one injured.
  • April 7, 1987 [15]
    • A blast tore holes in a coal storage building. No one was injured, but the plant shut down for the rest of the day.

Litigation and Controversy

  • January 1, 2008 [16]
    • Xcel Energy, unrelated to any lawsuit or violation, asked state regulators for permission to install regulators to help decrease mercury emissions
    • Should the state acquiesce, Xcel can have the regulators installed by 2010.

Articles and Resources

Sources

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Kirsti Marohn, "Times exclusive: $1 billion upgrade at Xcel's Becker Sherco plant on hold" SC Times, Oct. 24, 2010.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Daniel Cusick, "Minnesota’s largest coal unit to restart, despite concerns over pollution, emissions," E&E, Oct 9, 2013.
  3. Carbon Monitoring for Action: Sherburne County Plant Data. Center for Global Democracy.
  4. Environmental Protection Agency. Toxic Release Inventory: Sherburne County Plant Data. Right to Know Network.
  5. Environmental Protection Agency. Toxic Release Inventory: Sherburne County Plant Data. Right to Know Network.
  6. Environmental Protection Agency. Toxic Release Inventory: Sherburne County Plant Data. Right to Know Network.
  7. Environmental Protection Agency. Toxic Release Inventory: Sherburne County Plant Data. Right to Know Network.
  8. "The Toll from Coal: An Updated Assessment of Death and Disease from America's Dirtiest Energy Source," Clean Air Task Force, September 2010.
  9. "Technical Support Document for the Powerplant Impact Estimator Software Tool," Prepared for the Clean Air Task Force by Abt Associates, July 2010
  10. 10.0 10.1 Sue Sturgis, "Coal's ticking timebomb: Could disaster strike a coal ash dump near you?," Institute for Southern Studies, January 4, 2009.
  11. TRI Explorer, EPA, accessed January 2009.
  12. "EPA’s Blind Spot: Hexavalent Chromium in Coal Ash" Earthjustice & Sierra Club, February 1, 2011.
  13. "Coal ash waste tied to cancer-causing chemicals in water supplies" Alicia Bayer, Examiner.com, February 1, 2011.
  14. Pilot Killed in Helicopter Crash at NSP Plant in Becker. Minneapolis Star Tribune (November 5, 1986).
  15. Blast Damages NSP's Sherco Power Plant. Minneapolis Star Tribune (April 7, 1987).
  16. Xcel Energy to Control Mercury Emissions. Power Engineering (January 1, 2008).

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