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PUC puts protections into Big Stone permit for transmission route

PIERRE — Two utility companies received approval from state regulators Wednesday to construct a new high-voltage electricity line across northeastern South Dakota.

The state Public Utilities Commission voted 3-0 to grant the permit to Montana-Dakota Utilities and Otter Tail Power.

They plan to build a transmission line connecting new substations near the Big Stone generation plant in Grant County and near Ellendale, North Dakota.

The line would cross through Grant, Day and Brown counties in South Dakota.

Some landowners along the proposed route became involved in the PUC's permitting process because they feared negative impacts on their farming operations.

"With 33 conditions and 14 subsets, consumers are protected," Commissioner Kristie Fiegen, of Sioux Falls, said.

She called the project "a landmark" for infrastructure in South Dakota.

"It kind of reminds me of the interstate system when we put that in," she said. "Our electrical grid doesn't have state lines. It goes across the nation.

Fiegen raised concerns again Wednesday about the possible impacts on dairy cows. "Not many facts were given to us," she said.

Rather than add requirements to the permit, Fiegen said, she is "putting my faith" that the route most favorable for dairy would be selected.

The route would pass within one-half of a mile of a dairy farm.

Commissioner Chris Nelson, of Pierre, offered an additional requirement to the permit that a specific plan for minimizing the risk for spread of soybean cyst nematode.

Nelson said looked at the permit from the perspective of a farmer and the applicants "worked very diligently" to make as many concessions as possible.

He said more couldn't be done because some of the information came late in the process from landowners who didn't join the docket as interveners.

Nelson acknowledged there is an element of trust and the burden is on the two utilities to make it work.

"There's only so much that can be put in writing," he said.

Commissioner Gary Hanson said the companies fulfilled their burden of proof required for the permit.

"This has been a very intriguing docket," Hanson said.

It brought out items such as the soybean cyst nematode that haven't been considered by the commission on permit applications for other projects, Hanson said.

He said the information and evidence presented by those landowners who intervened made the permit stronger.