University plant has residents steaming

Max Rust

The University’s southeast steam plant is generating more than heat these days.
Residents in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood are fed up with noises coming from the riverfront facility and want something done about it.
“It’s almost as loud as the airplanes that fly over,” said resident George Hanson. “It’s constant.”
University officials attribute the noises to the testing of new boiler equipment that requires workers to vent steam, creating a high-pitched noise. Though the testing of the boilers should be finished, Foster Wheeler Inc., the company operating the plant, still needs to test turbine generator equipment.
And despite the problem, city officials are reluctant to take action because of the University’s constitutional autonomy.
Hanson recently wrote a letter to the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association, describing the noise as “beyond belief,” and “impossible.”
“The noise we think that’s bothering (the neighbors) is from the start-up of the boilers,” said Jennifer Schulz, a spokeswoman for Facilities Management. “Normally once the boilers are running, there’s no sound. But because of the testing, they’ve been turned on and off repeatedly, and that is why there’s been more noise than normal.”
Three weeks ago, the University’s main steam plant, under a nearby railroad, was shut down, making the southeast plant the University’s main source of heat.
But the building has been a source of annoyance day and night for Hanson since November. He said he first started inquiring about the noise after his wife was awakened in the middle of the night.
Schulz said the testing was scheduled for daytime hours and there weren’t supposed to be any steam-plant noises at night.
Representatives for Foster Wheeler Inc. could not be reached for comment.
“We’re going to have to figure out where these noises are coming from and do some noise measurements,” said Jan Morelock, director of community relations for the University.
In November, Hanson unsuccessfully tried to get city officials to measure the noise level to determine whether the plant was violating the city of Minneapolis’ noise ordinance.
“We haven’t done any monitoring down there. We suspect that there may be a violation of the city’s noise ordinance,” said Bill Anderson, the environmental supervisor for the city.
Anderson said the University’s noise problem is unique since the University does not always have to comply with city and state ordinances, by way of a clause in the state Constitution.
“The reality is, any time the city is involved in a regulatory matter with the University, the constitutional autonomy is asserted,” Anderson said. “So here we have a situation where something is occurring on University property, but the impact is felt by Minneapolis neighborhoods. That’s the kind of issue that the lawyers could litigate for years.”
Anderson said city officials are in the process of setting up a meeting between Foster Wheeler Inc., the University’s Facilities Management, city council members and the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association to try and figure out a time line to resolve the matter and avoid a lengthy litigation process.
Also, city officials on Wednesday met to discuss the formation of a noise-steering committee that would monitor noise pollution problems and influence planning decisions with regard to reducing noise.
“It may seem like a relatively minor nuisance in the scheme of things,” Anderson said. “But I can assure you, for the people impacted by noise sources, it’s anything but minor, and we’re taking it very seriously.”

Max Rust covers community and welcomes comments at [email protected]