Steam plant clears hurdle

Bei Hu

The University’s plan to renovate its Southeast Steam Plant moved a step ahead Tuesday at a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s citizens board meeting, when members voted six to one in favor of an air emissions permit.
The permit would allow the University to proceed with the refurbishment of the primarily coal-burning steam plant, which is located by the Stone Arch Bridge on the Mississippi River. This is an important victory for the University, but there is still opposition to the plans for the steam plant.
“This is something that (the) University absolutely needs … to happen,” said Roger Paschke, University associate vice president for Finance and Operations.
Board member Dan Foley voted against the permit, saying he was concerned about the amount of pollution released by the 93-year-old steam plant.
The permit will be signed into effect in the next few days by the head of the pollution control agency’s air quality division, said David Beil, a staff engineer of the division, which drafted the permit and recommended its issuance.
This document will replace the expired permits for all three of the University’s steam plants. Aside from the Southeast Steam Plant, the University also owns the Main Plant by the East Bank campus and the St. Paul campus steam plant. This document will allow the facilities to operate over the next five years.
The permit provides for the installation of three new boilers in the southeast facility. Two boilers will burn a combination of natural gas and sulfur-fuel oil. The third one will burn coal or natural gas.
To reduce coal-dust emissions the permit proposes enclosing coal storage areas located at the Main Plant. Another proposal called for transporting coal in a tunnel between the Main Plant and the southeast facility.
The $110 million renovation of the Southeast Steam Plant is expected to be completed by the end of 1998. By then, the Main Plant will be permanently shut down.
The renovated southeast and St. Paul facilities will together burn 70 percent or more natural gas.
University officials developed the initial renovation proposal after outside consultants predicted in 1988 that the southeast facility could function for only 10 more years without major renovations.
During the coldest part of last winter, the plant was handling a demand for heat that was 15 percent beyond its capabilities. University officials said the current Minneapolis facilities will not meet the future needs of an ever-expanding campus.
The Main and Southeast plants have failed several times in recent years.
Pollution control agency board members spent more than four hours at their Aug. 27 meeting struggling with legal issues concerning the proposed permit. Much of the debate centered on the applicability of two state statutes.
The State Shoreland Management Act restricts alterations of buildings on riverbanks for scenic reasons. A separate flood-plain management law regulates construction by the river that could obstruct the flow of flood water. Both laws are primarily enforced through city ordinances.
Minneapolis city officials have joined environmentalists in demanding that the University build an off-river or gas-burning facility. They have sought to pass a zoning ordinance in the Minneapolis City Council to bar the renovation of the existing plant.
But University officials have argued that the school, as a land-grant institution, is independent of city administration. But questions remain as to whether the state statutes should directly apply to the University.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, in conjunction with the Attorney General’s Office, has ruled that the renovation can proceed because the steam plant predates the state statutes. Furthermore, the statutes do not apply because the steam plant will not increase in size.
But Minneapolis can set higher standards than the state does for the protection of the riverbank. Steve Shakman, representing the Attorney General’s Office, said there is no “100-percent certain answer” to whether the University should comply with city ordinances. He said the issue should be settled in court.
State Representative Phyllis Kahn (DFL-Minneapolis), who opposed the University’s plan, called the board decision “one of the worst environmental decision we got to see made in the state.”
Kahn said she would work with environmental groups to appeal the decision in court.