Advise and dissent as Rock-Tenn Community Advisory Panel faces Port Authority plans

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There’s a jury in St. Paul that meets every two weeks. Unlike other juries, it deliberates in public, rather than behind closed doors. It meets in a church instead of a courtroom. It passes judgment not on criminal cases but on fuel sources. It’s called the Rock-Tenn Community Advisory Panel (RCAP) and, like a jury, it’s subject to the same manipulations, distortions, and conflicts of interest that surface around criminal proceedings.

The panel was set up by a bill the Minnesota State Legislature passed last April. Sponsored by Senator Ellen Anderson, it earmarked $4 million dollars from the Minnesota Department of Commerce for a study of renewable fuels that could keep the Rock-Tenn Corporation’s paper recycling plant in St. Paul open. The factory lost a major source of power last summer when Xcel Energy shut down its steam line and says the cost of natural gas has driven it to look toward other fuel solutions to keep its factory profitable. Anderson’s legislation established a team of 15 local citizens, the Rock-Tenn Advisory Panel, to look into the issue. Since September these panelists have been attending public presentations on the pros and cons of various renewable fuel sources and taking public comments. By next spring they hope to be able to recommend a new fuel plan for Rock-Tenn to the St. Paul city council.

“It was really intended not to be a voting body,” says Nina Axelson, outreach coordinator for the panel. “We didn’t want the decision that comes out of this to be a majority rule, we want it to be a decision that everyone in the community can live with.”

For background, see the Daily Planet’s earlier series on Rock-Tenn issues.
Re-fueling Rock Tenn: environmental and economic challenges
Who’s on First? Keeping track of the players
Following the money: who pays and who profits
Garbage or green energy: a look at the issues around RDF

In July 2006 Axelson, a former community organizer with the St. Anthony Park Community Council, co-founded a group called Rock-Tenn Interested Neighbors with fellow organizer Justin Eibenholzl. The group was designed to address environmental concerns raised by St. Anthony Park residents living in the shadow of the recycling plant. At the time, lawmakers were mulling over how exactly to find a replacement fuel source that would satisfy the state’s largest paper recycler and preserve the 500 union jobs at its factory. The group organized neighbors in hopes of injecting a dose of citizen involvement into a process which, until then, had been dominated by politicians and energy industry representatives.

The original legislation contained only a vague mention of any public involvement process in the fuel source debate. According to Axelson, RTIN, with support from community members, was able to persuade lawmakers to add language to the bill setting up a formal citizen’s review process. What began as essentially a private decision ended up being exposed to a high degree of public scrutiny.

The bill called for six of the community councils near Rock-Tenn: Hamline/Midway, St. Anthony Park, Merriam Park, Macalester Groveland, Desnoyer Park, and Southeast Como, to recommend neighborhood representatives for the panel. The Midway Chamber of Commerce and the United Steelworkers also picked their own representatives. Finally the St. Paul Port Authority (SPPA), appointed by the legislation to oversee the process, picked four at-large representatives and three alternates. By last September the 15-member committee began holding regular bi-weekly meetings. But no sooner had meetings started than some began raising questions about the Port Authority and the role it was playing as the process unfolded. Axelson herself has expressed misgivings about the entity’s involvement.

“The thing I think is kind of schizophrenic about the whole thing is that they [state legislators] said ‘district council go appoint people’ and at the same time the Port Authority is given this really high level of accountability to convene,” she comments. Axelson also isn’t sure why lawmakers nominated the Port Authority, out of all the possible government bodies, to oversee the process in the first place.

“That’s the million dollar question,” she adds, “I’m sure everyone will give you a different answer.”

The legislation called for the RCAP members to advise the Port Authority on the fuel study’s scope. Now some are wondering if the Port Authority has defined the scope without giving panelists a chance to weigh in. Until recently, the size of the Port Authority’s ambitions was only a matter of speculation. But for Neighbors against the Burner activist Bev Ferguson those suspicions were confirmed when an insert titled “The Energy Independent,” appeared inside several thousand neighborhood papers throughout the Twin Cities. The insert, published by the Port Authority, glowingly describes its new vision for a power plant to be located in the Midway area of St. Paul. It’s already tapped a corporation to run the plant- Ever-Green Energy (formerly known as Market Energy), the for-profit arm of non-profit District Energy. District Energy is a utility company that heats and cools most of downtown St. Paul with plans to expand further. According to the Port Authority, the proposed biomass-powered plant would create a “green energy district” to fuel not only Rock-Tenn but businesses along University Avenue’s central corridor as well. Some panelists say a plan of this scale isn’t what they signed up for.

“We are not the Central Corridor Community Advisory Panel,” writes RCAP member Tom Welna in an email to other panelists. “Never, not once in any of the testimony from Lorrie Louder [of the SPPA] at the legislature was a district energy system ever mentioned. Bait and switch? That’s all I can think of when I see ‘The Energy Independent.’”

Opponents of the jumbo plant wouldn’t be so hot and bothered about the Ever-Green Energy/Market Energy/Port Authority plan if they thought a clean fuel source would be running it. Panelist Don Arnosti says the size of the plant pre-determines the type of fuel used and there just isn’t enough plant biomass to power the Central Corridor on top of Rock-Tenn. Arnosti and other panelists think the “green energy district” envisioned will be powered by Refuse-Derived Fuel (RDF). RDF is shredded municipal waste that has been picked through to remove glass and certain metals. Port Authority officials appear shocked that they would be accused of scheming to burn the fluffy fuel.

“People have the misimpression that the Port Authority wants RDF,” says Tom Collins, marketing and development director for the St. Paul Port Authority. “That is not at all the Port’s stand on this. All we’ve done is empower a panel to look at fuel sources.”

Welna disagrees, explaining how an earlier incident confirmed his suspicions that the Port Authority and District Energy had planned on burning RDF from the beginning. He recalls a scene at the state capitol where lobbyists from both District Energy and the Port Authority were present. At the time the legislation that spawned the RCAP committee was still in its infant stages and the fuel sources for the panelists to consider was not set in stone.

“We were trying to get Ellen Anderson to take RDF off the list,” says Welna. “…the lobbyists threw up their hands and said “No deal if you take RDF off the table.”

The Port Authority’s flyer doesn’t describe the proposed plant’s size or the fuel it plans to burn. The most detailed generator plan to date is laid out in a study commissioned by the Ramsey/Washington Country Resource Recovery Board in 2006, a study that focuses exclusively on RDF as a fuel for Rock-Tenn. It advocates expanding the current RDF plant in Newport, MN to double its output capacity, constructing RDF burners at Rock-Tenn. The Newport plant is heavily subsidized by both counties to take their solid waste and process it into RDF, which it then ships to Xcel plants at Red Wing and Wilmar to be burned.

The backstage dealings of the St. Paul Port Authority have led some to question the role of the citizen’s advisory committee in public policy making, not only in the case of the Rock-Tenn panel, but on a larger scale. Critics of the process, like environmental activist Alan Muller, say these panels are set up to take advantage of well-intentioned citizens and rubber-stamp development plans with community support. They point to possible conflicts of interest in the selection process with two panelists representing firms holding contracts with the SPPA and the City of St. Paul.

Others see these panels as much-needed opportunities to bring the public into decision-making processes that normally take place behind closed doors over long tables with ample ice water.

“I have faith that they [the SPPA] really want to listen to public input,” says panelist Chris Jones. “I do think the panel’s recommendations are going to be taken very seriously by the Port Authority.”

None of the major players in the decision have made any kind of an agreement to implement the panel’s final recommendations. Tom Collins and Anders Rydaker both say they’re committed to the “Energy Independent” plan, regardless of what panelists decide. Rock-Tenn, after receiving millions in state subsidies to find it a new fuel source, won’t commit itself to keeping its factory open for any given time period in return. It definitely won’t agree to implement the recommendations of a citizen panel when it comes to choosing its own fuel source. As for the St. Paul city council, Axelson, Ferguson, and Arnosti all feel it would be political suicide for council members to vote against a recommendation backed by such a wide range of community interests. That doesn’t mean such a vote is out of the realm of possibility.

“A lot of things could happen,” says Axelson. “That’s certainly one of them.”

In the end, panels will form and dissolve, but the fuel source controversy doesn’t seem likely to go away. Time will tell whether or not RCAP members will succeed in drafting their own independent plan. By next spring the panelists hope to present some sort of unified proposal to the St. Paul City Council. Assuming that Rock-Tenn agrees to the deal, project members don’t expect a new generating plant to be up and running until 2011 at the earliest. Jones is prepared to dig in for the long haul.

“I think we’ve still got a lot to hear about and learn. We’ve only touched on public health issues and some of the larger fuel choice issues,” he comments.

RCAP Meetings are open to the public and take place at 7 pm every other Monday evening at St. Anthony Park United Methodist Church in St. Paul. The next meeting will be held on November 12. For more information go to www.rtadvisory.org or call Nina Axelson at 612-788-4151.

Dan Gordon is a free-lance writer in the Twin Cities. He can be reached at upagainstthewalrus@riseup.net