Without permit, plans for steam plant stall

by Bei Hu

The chance that University officials will jump-start renovation on the Southeast Steam Plant by the end of this year grew less likely when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Citizens Board convened in late August.
The board members decided to delay action on a proposed air emission permit for the project after spending about four hours hearing contending arguments at the August 27 meeting. Some members were concerned that the permit’s issuance would, among other things, constitute a breach of certain environmental standards.
The decision permits the facilities to operate under existing conditions, said David Beil, a staff engineer of the agency’s Air Quality Division. But he said no renovation is allowed before the board gives it a go-ahead.
The University has three steam plants, two on the Minneapolis campuses, and one on the St. Paul campus. Under new environmental statutes, only one air emission permit can be issued for the three facilities.
University officials began planning on upgrading the steam plants eight years ago. The renovation plan, projected to cost $110 million, includes complete closure of the Main Steam Plant by the East Bank campus. It also proposes installation of three new boilers in the primarily coal-burning Southeast Steam Plant. This would allow it to use multiple fuels. To reduce pollutant emission, coal would be transported through enclosed tunnels.
Many local groups oppose the plan, fearing the refurbished southeast plant, located by the Stone Arch Bridge on the Mississippi River, would continue to use coal as the major fuel and cause pollution. Some have called for constructing a new plant off-river to open the riverbanks for public recreation.
Speaking before the board, Minneapolis city planner Michael Orange cited state acts that prohibit activities likely to cause “pollution, impairment, or destruction.” He also referred to an existing city code which bans industrial developments on riverbanks and bluffs.
In past months, Joan Campbell, a Minneapolis City Council Member, had tried to introduce a zoning code amendment that could bar the University from renovating the steam plant on the river.
University representatives have argued that as a land-grant institution, the school is independent of city jurisdiction and the steam plant had been built before the acts were passed.
The citizens board’s discussion broke down partly because its members couldn’t agree on whether the state statutes should apply directly to the University, even if it did not have to abide by the city ordinances.
The delay disappointed University officials who had hoped the board would approve the renovation at the meeting and end a prolonged debate.
Roger Paschke, University associate vice president of Finance and Operations and the current University spokesman on the issue, expressed “very serious concern with delay or denial of the permit.”
“This plant is in dire straits,” he said as the discussion headed for a deadlock, referring to the aging southeast plant which heats and cools the Minneapolis campuses. The facility has had failures in the past year. “And this will only get worse,” he added.
But the delay offered temporary relief to the plan’s opponents, including University faculty members, neighborhood leaders and representatives of the city of Minneapolis.
Campbell said at the meeting, “This is not a disagreement between the University and the city. It’s a dispute between the University and just about everybody else.”
Although University officials have never openly rejected an off-river or gas-burning alternative, Paschke continued to defend their plan at the meeting. “We honestly believe this is the alternative that balances all environmental and economic needs,” He said, “There is no question the project will be a major environmental improvement over the status quo.”
No further board discussions about the issue have been scheduled. Beil said the board is expecting interpretations of the state shoreland management act by the State Department of Natural Resources and the State Attorney General’s Office.