When the High Bridge power plant stops burning coal in June, the Rock-Tenn recycling plant in St. Paul will lose its energy source. That poses major concerns for a wide variety of stakeholders throughout the metro area and beyond. Concerns focus on the sources of energy that will replace the coal-generated steam of Xcel’s High Bridge plant.
The Burning Question: coal, garbage, biomass and sustainable energy
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Friday: Re-fueling Rock Tenn: environmental and economic challenges
Saturday: Who’s on First? Keeping track of the players
Sunday: Following the money: who pays and who profits
Monday: Garbage or green energy: a look at the issues around RDF
The Rock-Tenn plant, which began as family-owned Waldorf Paper in 1908 and was bought by Rock-Tenn corporation in 1997, processes half of all paper recycled in Minnesota, about one thousand tons daily. Rock-Tenn is an international recycling and manufacturing firm, with about 10,000 employees in plants in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Chile. In St. Paul, Rock-Tenn employs about 500 people, at an average salary of $60,000, according to senior executive Jack Greenshields, and spends about $75 million annually on goods and services. Occupying 42 acres of prime industrial property just north of Interstate 94 at Cretin-Vandalia, Rock-Tenn sits across the freeway from the Desnoyer and Merriam Park neighborhoods in St. Paul and even closer to the developing Central Corridor along University Avenue.
Rock-Tenn has a good reputation—as a recycling operation, as a corporate signer of community “good neighbor” agreements, as an employer with a well-paid, unionized work force, as a big business and taxpayer in the city and county. Everybody involved in the discussions of energy sources for Rock-Tenn agrees that the company should continue doing business right where it is in St. Paul. “Rock-Tenn is really important from a solid waste management pont of view, because it is one of the largest recycling operations in state,” says Zack Hansen of the Ramsey County Public Health Department. “More than half of state’s recycled paper is processed through Rock-Tenn. Because they’re in Ramsey county, we’re happy with that, but we are very concerned that if anything were to happen to Rock-Tenn, we’d lose a major recycling resource in state.”
Since 1984, Rock-Tenn energy needs have been met by the coal-burning Xcel High Bridge power plant. The High Bridge plant, owned and operated by Xcel Energy, burned coal, generally considered the “dirtiest” of fossil fuels. With the conversion of the High Bridge plant to cleaner-burning natural gas, it will no longer meet the steam and energy needs of Rock-Tenn. Rock-Tenn, and many public officials, agree that the company is “the victim of good public policy.”
In a January 18, 2006 letter to Rock Tenn, local government officials assured the company that, “We want Rock-Tenn to continue to recycle 1,000 tons of paper each day and to provide 500 livable wage jobs.” St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, St. Paul Port Authority President Kenneth Johnson, and the chairs of the Ramsey County and Washington County Board of Commissioners signed the letter, expressing their support for building a facility that uses refuse-derived fuel (RDF), and pledging to assist in financing and feasibility studies. Since then, a 100+ page report focused on the economics, logistics and feasibility of RDF fuel has been prepared and the St. Paul Port Authority has reiterated its commitment to finance, construct and own a power plant facility on the Rock-Tenn campus.
A new power plant would provide a long-term solution, but for the next three to six years, Rock-Tenn will fire up four old boilers, burning fuel oil to meet its energy needs. The four boilers, which were built in 1928, 1942, 1947 and 1964, have been used only intermittently and infrequently since 1984, as back-up sources of power. They will now be used to provide power 24 hours/day and seven days/week.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) granted a permit for the use of the boilers. According to the Technical Support Document for the permit, “MPCA’s initial reaction was that this would be a change in the method of operation, triggering review of the change in emissions under NSR [New Source Review]. Review of previous EPA [federal Environmental Protection Agency] determinations on similar projects validated this belief. However, when the issue was discussed with EPA Region 5 staff, it became clear that EPA does not support this interpretation … [because] Rock Tenn is not proposing a physical change or change in the method of operation of the boilers.”
MPCA permit manager Richard Sandberg said its only legal authority in this permitting process comes from EPA, as a state delegate agency charged with enforcing federal law, so it cannot make any independent determination about whether NSR applies.
Neighbors worry about air pollution from the old boilers. Justin Eibenholzl, environmental coordinator for Southeast Como Improvement Association, said that, “We commented on the air permits … basically discouraging them from burning fuel oil as much as possible and to rely on natural gas as much as they could.” Greenshields said the company would be more likely to burn natural gas in the summer, when prices are lower, and to rely on No. 6 fuel oil during the rest of the year. Even so, Greenshields said, emissions will go up. The company’s projections predict emissions totaling about 187 tons of particulate matter—PM and PM10—per year, 1,785 tons of sulfur dioxide and 474 tons of nitrous oxide per year, still well within the limits set by the MPCA-issued air quality permit.
Fuel oil is neither economically nor environmentally feasible as a long-term source of energy, according to Greenshields. Instead, Rock-Tenn plans to get future energy needs met by building a new energy plant that will use RDF and, possibly, other fuels classified as biomass. According to Rock-Tenn, that’s sustainable energy. Some community residents say that’s burning garbage, and they don’t like it.
“If St. Paul truly is going to go on the map as a green city, we ought to be doing everything we can to not put more garbage into the air,” insists Linda Winsor of the Hamline Midway Coalition. Eibenholzl concurs. “We don’t agree with including garbage as biomass,” he says. “Whether the legislature defines it as that because of pressure from some groups, that’s a different thing. Garbage is garbage.”
The community debate, which simmered during 2006, is likely to reheat this spring. Jack Greenshields says, “We don’t have any models that are without RDF.” A Green Institute study comparing a wide range of biomass options is due to be released later in March. A decision on the kind of plant to be built could come by summer. Any proposal will have to pass through layers of community and government review, including both economic and environmental impact analyses.
Tomorrow: Who’s on first? Keeping track of the players explores the public and private actors in the game.