Rock-Tenn fuel debate heats up

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It’s a crisis, or an opportunity. It’s a health threat, or an environmental breakthrough. It’s an economic boon, or a risky investment.

It’s the future power source for St. Paul’s Rock-Tenn recycling plant, and it’s got a lot of people spending a lot of time trying to figure out what to do next.

After six meetings, the 15-member Rock-Tenn Community Advisory Panel has generated reams of e-mail, exhausted a facilitator and launched an experiment in democracy that draws praise from participants but can appear impenetrable to those not involved in its deliberations.

Impaneled by the St. Paul Port Authority, as directed by the Minnesota Legislature, the group is charged with recommending a power source that will help the Rock-Tenn plant keep its operations, and therefore its hundreds of jobs, in St. Paul.

Rock-Tenn needs steam, and when the Xcel Energy High Bridge plant shut down in August, Rock-Tenn began employing its backup system burning natural gas — a source the company says is too expensive to serve long-term.

The leading alternative appears to be burning “biomass,” either plant material or waste, and many neighbors fear the air-quality implications, both from smokestacks and from trucks bringing in fuel.

Or, as the panel’s outreach coordinator, Nina Axelson, put it: “Fuels, technology and emissions. It boils down to those three things.”

Those are turning out to be three very large topics, each with a long list of subtopics. Panel members say the panel’s diversity of expertise and interests is a good thing, but it’s clear that each issue quickly takes as many directions as there are people discussing it.

For example, should the power source serve only Rock-Tenn, or should a grander vision serving other Midway industries be considered?

A recent “Energy Independent” enclosure in neighborhood newspapers, published by the Port Authority, tips their hand as favoring the larger vision. While there are rumors to the contrary, the Port identifies Rock-Tenn’s situation as having precipitated the discussion of a Midway energy plant.

Port Authority Vice President of Finance Peter Klein said the uneven nature of Rock-Tenn’s power needs makes it necessary to consider broadening the plant’s scope. During hours when Rock-Tenn isn’t using its steam, “it doesn’t do anybody any good to have energy going down to the river” as hot wastewater, Klein said.

Neighbors counter that a bigger plant will mean more pollution.

Others argue that a bigger plant might allow other plants to shut down other outdated power sources and reduce their “carbon footprint” by using renewable fuels.

And if you thought biomass means strictly trash, think again. Klein said options under study include corn stover (stalks left in the field after harvest), grasses and a fast-growing type of willow.

He said he expects the Port’s contractors to begin bringing those studies to the advisory panel in February, adding that the panel could get interested in one source and pursue it, only to discover a roadblock and have to start over again on a different energy source.

After the panel makes a recommendation, the Port also has to hear from the four District Councils (11, 12, 13 and 14) in the immediate area and hold at least two public meetings. Then it will make a recommendation to the St. Paul City Council.

The project has not moved as fast as planned, as evidenced by a letter from the Port Authority to the state, dated Oct. 27, requesting only $148,000 of the $600,000 budgeted up to that point. Klein said he would now consider the original scenario, with public meetings happening in summer 2008, “optimistic.”

The panel also picked up a new independent facilitator in November, having received Lynn Moline’s resignation.

With the debates proliferating and the timeline in flux, how can citizens keep up with this issue if, as Klein put it, they “don’t have a ton of time” to sift through documents and read e-mails?

Axelson said that while the advisory panel is not required to comply with Minnesota data practices (the “sunshine” laws that govern open meetings and public records), the panel has chosen to do so. All of the panel’s biweekly meetings are open to the public.

The panel has a Web site (www.rtadvisory.org) where studies, correspondence and other relevant documents are posted. Axelson is developing two database tools, a “comment tracker” and a “question tracker,” primarily to serve the panel and other officials but also available to the public via the site’s Public Meetings page.

Axelson and St. Anthony Park’s citizen representative to the panel, Matt Hass, are also planning some occasional “coffee chats” to update neighbors and field questions and concerns.

“I am happy to spend 20 minutes with an interested neighbor,” Axelson said, “so they can always start with me and I can direct them to the resources most appropriate to their questions.” Axelson can be reached at nina@sapcc.org or 612-788-4151.

The St. Anthony Park library has much of the panel’s material in hard copy, and during a recent visit there, a librarian offered help sorting through the pile. The Hamline and Merriam Park branches are also expected to make the materials available.

“We don’t want this to become a solely Web-accessible thing,” Axelson said.

Ward 4 City Council member-elect Russ Stark said that although the City Council will not weigh in on the matter yet, he expects to field comments and questions throughout the process.

“I think it’s such a critical issue for the ward and for the city,” Stark said.

He said that the city will have considerable influence on the eventual outcome as it negotiates permits, financing and site planning.

Panel member Matt Hass, whose service on the District 12 Council’s Environment Committee led him to a spot on the panel, said council and committee meetings are often good places to get updates. The Environment Committee meets the fourth Wednesday of every month at 7 p.m. at the South St. Anthony recreation center.

Hass said “it would be great to see more people from St. Anthony Park” at the advisory panel’s meetings, as well.

He said that in addition to keeping up with the panel’s e-mail discussion group (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/RTADVISORY), he spends four to five hours perusing documents to prepare for each three-hour biweekly panel meeting.

“I don’t think any of us realized going into it that it was going to be this complicated,” Hass said.