CNO supports petition for environmental assessment of biomass project

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On January 2, the CNO Executive Board focused its meeting agenda on the proposed “Midtown Eco-Energy” biomass project, which would convert the existing, unused garbage incinerator at 2850 20th Ave S, in the adjacent East Phillips neighborhood, into a wood-burning heat and power facility. Citing reasonable outstanding concerns by Corcoran residents with regards to the project’s impact on air quality and public health, the CNO Board passed the following motion by unanimous vote: “The Corcoran Neighborhood Organization supports the petitioners of Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Kandiyohi Development Partners in their request that an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) be completed for the Midtown Eco-Energy, LLC biomass project currently under permit review (Air Emission Permit No. 05301187-001) by the MPCA.”

The board discussed but did not take a position regarding the Midtown Eco-Energy project, noting a lack of consensus on the part of Corcoran residents regarding the project. The CNO board and staff will continue to support residents by encouraging communication between interested parties.

In August 2007, the CNO Board voted to enter into a “Good Neighbor Agreement” as proposed by Midtown Eco-Energy. The agreement calls for clear and regular communication between Midtown Eco-Energy and community organizations during project construction and startup. CNO’s Land Use & Transportation Committee hosted a presentation by Kandiyohi Partners at its April 16, 2007 meeting with attendance by 13 Corcoran residents.

The January 2 Board action and the Good Neighbor Agreement constitute CNO’s only official statements with regards to the Midtown Eco-Energy biomass project at this time. “The Board’s motion and decision not to take a position in support or opposition of the project affirm CNO’s mission to foster resident-driven activism, facilitate discussion, and act as a conduit for information,” said CNO Executive Director Amy Arcand.

While an Environmental Assessment Worksheet would not otherwise be required by state law, a number of concerned community members, including the East Phillips-based Green Institute—the original author of the project—believe an EAW would more clearly explore and illuminate the project’s impact on air quality and public health in Corcoran and other neighborhoods that will be impacted.

On December 13, 2007, a public meeting convened by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) drew well over 100 residents concerned about air quality issues, in light of the air emission permit scheduled to be issued by the MPCA following the public comment period, which ends January 14, 2008.

The idea for a biomass heat and power facility at 2850 20th Ave S had its conceptual beginnings at the Green Institute, which spent over a million dollars studying its feasibility. A similar biomass plant, called District Energy, has been in operation for several years in downtown St. Paul. Several key concerns regarding the “Midtown” concept, including the availability of clean wood in the 13 county metro area, caused the Green Institute to hesitate in moving forward with the project. Director Michael Krauss left the Green Institute to form Kandiyohi Development Partners, which purchased the project in 2006.

In December, 2007, the Green Institute issued a letter to the MPCA calling for an Environmental Assessment Worksheet, and cited other concerns including the availability of sufficient clean wood. Kandiyohi has stated that the facility will be engineered to handle only wood and other biomass such as switchgrass, and that it has no intentions of pursuing use of plentiful but more polluting fuels such as garbage. Natural gas, they say, will fuel the facility during downturns in clean wood supply in the Twin Cities.

In addition to their call for a mandatory Environmental Assessment Worksheet, Corcoran-based critics claim the project’s community benefits will not justify its overall cost, including the developer’s use of public subsidies such as “Empowerment Zone” funding. In addition, some say the developer has misrepresented the project as benign or “carbon neutral,” and fear that a future owner’s attitudes toward public health, and intentions to pursue the use of other fuels, are impossible to predict.

The City Council voted last year to extend Kandiyohi Development’s option to purchase to March 2008, and to extend the closing date for sale of the property from October 2007 to October 2008. The 1939 incinerator burned garbage until the late 1960s, when the plant was shut down. Since 1999, the site has served as a garbage transfer station for the City of Minneapolis.

Questions and comments about the proposed air emission permit should be directed to Paula Connell, Senior Engineer, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 520 Lafayette Road North, St. Paul, MN 55155-4194, or paula.connell@pca.state.mn.us, or 612-282-2605. A copy of the draft permit and technical support document are available at http://www.pca.state.mn.us/news/data/index.cfm?PN=1. Copies will be mailed to any interested person upon the MPCA’s receipt of a written request. The public comment period ends January 14, 2008.

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