Questions and answers about the Midtown biomass burner

Permit does not allow burning of garbage

An overflow crowd of more than 100 people packed a Dec. 13 public hearing on an air-pollution permit for the proposed Midtown Eco-Energy burner, which would burn wood chips in what’s now a solid-waste transfer station at 2850 20th Ave. S., just off the intersection of Hiawatha Avenue and East Lake Street. A public review period regarding the project ends Jan. 14.

The burner has long been a controversial topic, and the public hearing drew protesters in stark opposition to the project, as well as others who called for more details about how the plant would affect the community.

“I’m just not sure doing this at Hiawatha and Lake Street is the right spot,” said Kevin Reuther, an environmental lawyer and Corcoran neighborhood resident who spoke at the Dec. 13 hearing.

Several people who commented at that meeting were alarmed about the possibility the power plant would run out of wood chips and need to resort to burning other, dirtier fuels like refuse-derived fuel (garbage). However, the draft permit specifically bans burning garbage. It does, however, allow testing on certain experimental fuels limited to plant matter like grass, corn or seed material.

While some doubt the availability of wood fuel in the Twin Cities, Kandiyohi officials say they are having no problems finding clean wood waste sources in Minneapolis and the west metro area. They expect the availability of wood scraps to surge as a migrating wave of tree-killing pests called emerald ash borers arrives in the Twin Cities in the coming years.

After the public hearing, an official at Kandiyohi Development Partners, the company seeking to build the power plant, said it was considering completing the more rigorous environmental review, but the study is not required to under state law because of the project’s small size.

Michael Krause, principal at Kandiyohi, came up with the idea for the Midtown Eco-Energy facility about six years ago while he was serving as director of the Green Institute. After receiving a $1.9 million federal grant to pursue research, the effort stalled and, in 2006, the Green Institute sold its work-to-date to Krause’s new private venture, Kandiyohi.

Now, the Green Institute is asking for more details, as well. In a Dec. 7 letter to Paula Connell, MPCA’s senior engineer on the project, the institute recommended that an Environmental Assessment Worksheet be completed to better describe the project and identify its environmental and social impacts and benefits; that the project identifies a viable, long-term source of biomass; that additional emissions controls for sulfur dioxide and mercury be considered; and that “composite woods” be excluded from the permit.

The burning issue

According to materials from Kandiyohi and the MPCA, the biomass facility would burn wood chips to heat a boiler, which would generate steam to turn the blades of a turbine, producing enough electricity to power about 18,000 homes. About 80 percent of the facility’s electricity would be used within a three-mile radius. Also, excess steam, as well as water used to cool the turbine, would be blasted into a network of pipes, providing heat and hot water to surrounding buildings.

Many climate strategists believe biomass will be a key component to solving our global warming crisis. It’s a fuel made from plant and animal material — things like corn, manure and tree trimmings. Unlike gas and coal, biomass is considered carbon neutral by European Union climate rules; it doesn’t contribute to greenhouse gas levels. And unlike wind and solar, it can be used to make electricity around the clock, not just when it’s windy or sunny.

However, the environmental impact is not entirely benign, and the Midtown Eco-Energy burner — which could annually emit several tons of nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide, particulate matter and other toxins — has received strong opposition.

“I don’t think there is any safe level of wood smoke,” said Julie Mellum, founder of a group called Take Back Our Air. In a recent post to the Prospect Park e-list, Neighbors Against the Burner — another group opposing the Midtown burner, as well as a similar Rock-Tenn project proposed in St. Paul — stated that “Incineration does not make physical matter, such as wood, disappear. It leaves behind hazardous particulates and pollutants.” The group listed more than a dozen different pollutants that would be emitted by the plant, highlighting the maximum levels allowed by the draft permit.

However, a risk analysis conducted by the MPCA suggests the power plant’s emissions would be well below the maximum allowed levels and are unlikely to have an effect on public health. MPCA Air Quality Researcher Gregory Pratt said sources like the Midtown facility represent only a “blip” in the big picture of air pollution sources.

A growing body of evidences suggests cars, trucks, tractors and other vehicles are by far the biggest source of health problems caused by air pollution, Pratt said. Auto emissions — as well as woodsmoke from fireplaces and backyard bonfires — are released at ground level, while industrial burners typically release their emissions from tall stacks, and the pollution is diluted before it reaches the breathing zone, Pratt said, adding that industrial facilities also have better controls on emissions that destroy or catch many of the chemicals and particulates.

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Commissioner Annie Young, raised concerns about the location of the proposed power plant. She noted that the area is already home to two asphalt plants, a metal foundry and a massive arsenic superfund cleanup. Carol Pass, president of the East Phillips Improvement Coalition, raised concerns about who would be affected by the emissions. She pointed out that the area is home to a growing number of families with young children, a population that could be especially at risk for air pollution. Neighbors Against the Burner cite the increased truck traffic and noise the plant would make, in an area with numerous schools and health care facilities.

If you would like to comment on the proposed air emissions permit, send comments in writing by 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 14 to Paula Connell, Industrial Division, MPCA, 520 Lafayette Road N., St. Paul, MN 55155; or by fax to 651-296-8717; or by email to paula.connell@pca.state.mn.us.

More information on the proposed air permit is available at www.pca.state.mn.us. Click on ‘Permits’, then ‘Public Notices’, and scroll down to ‘Nov. 16, 2007.’

last revised: January 9, 2008