Just after we put last week’s issue “to bed” we received the disheartening news that Minnesota Power was going to idle the Taconite Harbor Energy Center in the fall of 2016.
I felt sick, thinking of all the friends who work at the plant, who rely on their job there to be able to live here on the North Shore.
I understand that Minnesota Power will try to help the 40-plus employees find work elsewhere. But that means families will have to either have long-distance lives or will have to leave their homes. It means taking kids out of schools and spouses away from well-established jobs in the community. I’m heartbroken for the Taconite Harbor folks who are facing this overwhelming change.
In addition to feeling sad for the families, I’m concerned about the impact this will have on our county’s economy. Minnesota Power is a major commercial taxpayer—will the value of their property be as high for a shuttered power plant as an operational one?
Will our schools, which are already struggling with declining funds because of decreased enrollment, be able to carry on with even fewer students? How will our clinic and hospital absorb the loss of that many families with decent medical insurance?
And, if the power plant ceases to exist, will it nullify our relationship— and therefore the credit we get on our property taxes— because we reside in what was a taconite district?
Will the idling have an impact statewide? According to Minnesota Power officials, when running at full capacity the Taconite Harbor Energy Center provides electricity for about 120,000 residential customers. Will taking that much electrical production out of the statewide power pool drive rates higher across the board?
Although hints of the idling have been coming for years, I didn’t really believe it would happen. I grew up with the power plant in Schroeder and went to school with kids who lived in the bustling town of Taconite Harbor. Crossing the county line and coming into Schroeder to see the billowing white steam clouds was part of coming home.
I know the cause of the closure is a mix of market forces and environmental issues. But as a kid I didn’t think much about the health effects of coal. As an adult, living away from the North Shore, I remember hearing environmental concerns about emissions from coal burning power plants. But truthfully, I still didn’t think much about it.
When our military family lived in Mannheim, Germany in the late 1970s, I was more bothered by the towers of the nuclear power plant we drove by on a regular basis.
The ugly side of coal was revealed to me on our second stint in Germany. When the Iron Curtain started to slip in 1989 and Czechoslovakia opened its borders to American tourists, we took advantage and visited Prague.
Our family was welcomed kindly by the Czech people. We enjoyed seeing the Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge, which is featured in the opening scene of the first Mission Impossible movie. I bought an exquisite crystal vase and a matryoshka doll and we enjoyed crepes made by street vendors. It is an amazing town and we could see why it is sometimes considered equal in beauty to Paris.
I did notice though, that the stunning old buildings were dingy. A haze hung over the historic city. We enjoyed the trip nonetheless, but when we returned to Germany the subject came up. I asked why the former communist country seemed so smoggy? I was informed that it is because of the prevalence of coal—and the lack of environmental oversight.
I was glad then, when I moved back to Cook County in 1995 and started working at the local newspaper to learn—and write about— Minnesota Power’s efforts to meet and exceed the standards of the Environmental Protection Agency and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. I was pleased to work on articles detailing the millions of dollars being invested in the plant to reduce its sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury emissions while producing power.
But recently I’ve been troubled by the push to eliminate coal from our country’s portfolio forever. For some groups no matter how low the emissions go, it is not low enough.
I’m not an engineer, but Minnesota Power’s plan to keep improving its coal burning techniques made sense to me. We need power to operate our computers and charge our cellphones and heat our houses. I don’t think enough power can be generated from wind farms and solar panels for all of us. I’m not an energy broker, but I think coal needs to be part of our country’s energy portfolio— especially coal that can be processed in compliance with U.S. standards for emissions.
I’m not a scientist, but I thought Minnesota Power was on the right track in Schroeder. I’m sorry it won’t get to continue down that path.
In times like these it helps to recall that there have always been times like these.