Neighbors blast proposed Phillips biomass plant at public hearing

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A standing-room only crowd overwhelmed the moderator at the December 13 public hearing and blasted both the developers and the MPCA for what they claimed was disregard of the plant’s impact on air quality, noise pollution, and quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods. Throughout the fall the issue has simmered, but the pot was stirred once again last night as developers appeared for a second time before the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) seeking approval of a revised incinerator permit. Public comments, most of them emotionally charged and sharply critical of the proposed plant, were fired off at the development team as it squared off against neighbors at Trinity Lutheran Church, several blocks from the site of the proposed plant.

Midtown Eco-Energy, a Minneapolis development firm and a subsidiary of Kandiyohi Development Partners, caused some controversy last August at the first public hearing on its proposal to build a wood-burning power plant in the Phillips neighborhood. The south Minneapolis neighborhood is already home to a metal foundry, two asphalt plants, and a contaminated arsenic site.

Two recent developments may have put a kink in the firm’s timeline for carrying out its vision. On June 8 the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington DC re-affirmed an earlier ruling that the Bush administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was violating the Clean Air Act by treating biomass plants such as the Phillips project as “boilers” rather than “incinerators.” This classification allowed them to slip into a category with more relaxed standards for air emissions. The ruling affects many biomass plants across the country, which will now have to re-apply for permits that come with stricter limitations on fuel types and emissions.

Soon after, on August 27, the St. Paul community organization Neighbors against the Burner (NAB) filed a legal challenge to the project. A major objection raised in the petition was that a legal loophole in Minnesota statutes would have allowed the generator to burn up to 30 percent Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF). RDF, the bane of many environmentalists, is shredded municipal waste that has been picked through to remove glass and ferrous metals.

The new permit solves some, but not all, of the issues raised by challengers. This time around, the permit has been re-written to exclude RDF, allowing only for the burning of clean waste wood, tree and plant debris. But the amount of air pollution it will produce, something NAB has always taken an issue with, hasn’t changed with the new permit. The NAB challenge says the plant’s sulfur dioxide emissions could have been lowered from 39.3 tons a year to a mere 3.9 using best available technology, but that Kandiyohi officials dismissed the technology as not cost-effective. NAB was also perturbed by language in the original permit saying that those who grow their own food near the incinerator would consume nine times the “acceptable” amounts of pollutants, pointing out that a third of the city’s community gardens are located in Phillips, and most of them are clustered around the land slated for the generator.

Midtown Eco-Energy’s Craig Wilson says that having to re-permit the plant will push back the estimated start of construction to April of 2008, but “it has enabled us to spend additional time on engineering and getting contracts secured for fuel supply.”

The project team members at the public meeting wouldn’t say, however, where the wood fuel will be coming from over the life span of the plant, or whether or not any utility company has committed to a power purchase agreement for the plant’s electricity. The question of the unknown buyer and supplier was also raised by audience members and touched on in written comments submitted by the Green Institute. The Green Institute is a Minneapolis-based non-profit that originally intended to develop the plant before the city of Minneapolis awarded control of the project to Kandiyohi in 2005. The Green Institute changed its mind about the project, in part because its feasibility study showed a lack of available wood waste in the Twin Cities and surrounding area. Carl Nelson, Director of the Green Institute’s community energy project, says he’s not sure how Midtown Eco-Energy’s data can show enough urban wood waste to run a new incinerator in the highly competitive Twin Cities market where dead trees are fought over amongst the state’s existing biomass burners and the mulch industry.

“I don’t know where they’re getting their methodology from,” Nelson says. “We had a completely transparent methodology that you can see on our website. Their numbers they have seem to be an extrapolation of national data and not specific to Minnesota.”

Kim Havey, project manager for the plant, told the crowd at the meeting that wood supplies have been secured for the next seven years, but failed to give specifics beyond that point. Many of those at the hearing were concerned that future economics might force the plant to re-permit or sell to new owners who would begin burning other, dirtier fuels down the road.

“Five, ten, fifteen years from now we don’t know what they’re going to be burning,” Dave Bicking of Corcoran neighborhood told the crowd.

Julie Mellum, a Linden Hills resident and member of an organization called “Take Back the Air” agreed with Bicking, offering her own analogy from a Saturday Night Live skit.

“Once they build this plant, it’s like that fake commercial for the Bass-O-Matic blender,” she told the audience. “They start throwing in beautiful fresh fruit and it looks really good to the audience. Then they throw in a hideous live bass.”

The petition for a contested permit will be reviewed by an MPCA panel some time in February, according to Paula Connell, the agency’s public information specialist. At that time the panel will issue a decision on the permit.

MPCA will continue taking written comments on the proposal until January 14, but many audience members said they have already lost their belief in the agency’s willingness to involve the public in decision making.

“I feel like this process is coming from the top down,” says Jan Nye, a Phillips resident. “They’re not particularly interested in involving the people affected.”

To illustrate her point, Nye holds up a flyer that Kandiyohi distributed throughout adjacent neighborhoods in a mass mailing the day of the permit hearing. The flyer shows the biomass plant as a muscle-bound superhero proclaiming “Our neighborhood will be energized, safe, and healthy” as he glides through an azure sky.

“This is just advertising,” she adds. “It doesn’t even say anything to inform people about this meeting tonight.”

Public comments can be submitted in writing to:

Paula Connell, Air Quality Permits Section
Industrial Division, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
520 Lafayette Road North, St. Paul, Minnesota 55155
Phone: 651-282-2605
Fax: 651-296-8717

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