Nearly 100 people gathered at Hamline University May 29 to question a panel of experts about plans for biomass fuel conversion at St. Paul’s Rock-Tenn paper recycling plant. While they listened politely to a report on the Green Institute study and a description of the timeline for further study and decision-making, their questions quickly focused in on refuse-derived fuel (RDF) and its environmental and public health impacts.
Nancy Hone, of Neighbors Against the Burner, said that she had talked to the RDF processing plant in Newport, and that they told her that everything that was in household garbage went into RDF.
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 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.
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University of Minnesota environmental health sciences professor Gurumurthy Ramachandran, one of the panel of experts, said her information was correct and that RDF “has everything that we put out in our garbage, every container filled with solvents or oils that we put in. When you burn it, it’s going to release various kinds of organic chemicals.”
Ramachandran assured another questioner that “there are controls for pollution after burning.” He pointed out that existing RDF plants in this country and in Europe have emissions controlled “at what is considered safe limits. We cannot remove 100% of it, but we remove enough of it so that most health concerns are allayed.”
Merriam Park resident Nancy Cohen asked whether studies would include “an assessment of public health costs of increased incidences of very serious diseases that could flow from emissions of RDF or perhaps even other biomass plants.”
University of Minnesota economist Steve Taff, also on the panel of experts, said that public health impacts would be studied during the preparation of the Environmental Impact Statement. “We talk about mortality and morbidity—sick people and dead people,” Taff said. “I hate to sound flippant but that’s exactly what these studies do. They measure how much a live person is worth and how much a sick person is worth. It’s striking how we really gloss over some really important moral issues in these studies. … Whether we should put a dollar cost on human life or not is a question.”
State Senator Ellen Anderson agreed with calls for more studies. “I’m not going to be the one to defend RDF. It’s in the bill because the city and the plant believe it needs to be on the table to be looked at as an option if this is going to be a viable plant that operates in the future and employs a lot of people in St. Paul. I think having a lot of information is the best way to make the decision. We need to get the facts and we don’t have them yet.”
The public forum, sponsored by Rock-Tenn Interested Neighbors, included information on a Green Institute study of the economics of non-RDF biomass fuels, ranging from construction and demolition waste to specific agricultural crops. Carl Nelson, who directed the study, emphasized that Rock-Tenn’s fuel choice would depend not only on the cost of a particular fuel but also on capital investment and operating costs for the energy-generating technology, costs of financing and the energy needs of the plant, including possible energy-saving measures. While the study found that, at present, no single biomass fuel could provide all of the plant’s future energy needs, Nelson said that, “with long-term contracts, agricultural crops could provide 100 percent” of Rock-Tenn’s energy needs.
In response to a question during the discussion portion of the program, Anders Rydaker, president of District Energy St. Paul, emphatically affirmed that the studies to be conducted during the next year would look at solar energy and wind energy options as well as biomass.
The next step in the process is formation of the Rock-Tenn Community Advisory Panel, which will include representatives from Rock-Tenn, the City of St. Paul, District Energy, the St. Paul Port Authority, Ramsey County, the St. Paul and Midway Chambers of Commerce, four St. Paul District Councils (11, 12, 13 and 14), and four at-large representatives.
Neighbors Against the Burner is sponsoring another public meeting on June 19 at Macalester College, focusing on toxic emissions from RDF.