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GREAT FALLS — A draft environmental impact statement has been released on a planned coal-fired power plant near here, with the preferred alternative being the one proposed by the co-op that wants to build it.

Anne Hedges, program director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, criticized the Department of Environmental Quality's decision to analyze only three alternatives — including not building the plant.

"That's a pathetic range of alternatives," she said Monday. "We believe there are other ways to generate electricity that don't come with such serious environmental and health hazards."

The city of Great Falls and the Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative intend to build a 250-megawatt coal-fired plant and six megawatts of wind generation near Great Falls.

Developers of the Highwood Generating Station hope to begin construction next spring.

Public comment on the document is being taken until Aug. 15. A final EIS is not expected until early 2007.

The DEQ and USDA Rural Utilities Service prepared the 700-page analysis, which looks at environmental issues ranging from soil and cultural resources to water and wildlife.

More than 20 alternatives were evaluated. All but three were eliminated from more detailed consideration in the EIS because they didn't meet certain criteria, said Kathleen Johnson, DEQ environmental impact specialist.

Those criteria include failure to generate the needed 250 megawatts of power, cost, reliability and environmental shortcomings.

The three alternatives reviewed in detail include building the plant at its proposed site on Salem Road, building it at an industrial park near the city or not building the plant at all.

The Salem Road site was preferred because the industrial park site is closer to the city and wind turbines couldn't be incorporated at the industrial park site. The Salem site has nearby access to power lines, a nearby intake on the Missouri River and a place to bury ash.

Alternatives dismissed in the draft EIS included options to build coal-fired plants near Decker or Hysham. Those sites were ruled out because of increased expense and the lack of water supply.

Other options that weren't analyzed in depth include renewable energy, like wind power, and Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, or IGCC, a system that produces fewer carbon dioxide emissions than conventional coal-burning technology.

IGCC was ruled out because it wasn't cost-effective, lacks an acceptable level of reliability and would not significantly reduce emissions, the EIS said.

The plant will use about 3,200 gallons of water per minute, or 4.6 million gallons of water per day from the Missouri River, the EIS said. By comparison, the city of Great Falls used about 23 million gallons of treated water this past Sunday.

"The withdrawal of Missouri River water for plant operations would not significantly reduce flows in the Missouri River downstream from the site, through it would represent an additional increment of consumptive use," the analysis said.

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