Steam plant battles continue

by Lynne Kozarek

Figures released by the Board of Regents on Monday show that a legislative plan to move the University’s Southeast Steam Plant off the Mississippi River is months too late and an estimated $30.8 million too short.
The legislative offer of $6 million came in response to Minneapolis city officials’ requests for help in funding a plant relocation. University plans call for renovating the plant at its current Mississippi River site, but regents offered to build a new plant if public support surfaced by Jan. 1.
“The deal we had was to have the money by Jan. 1, and the cost is considerably more now than the $6 million that we talked to the city about,” Regents chair Thomas Reagan said. “We don’t know how much more it will cost at this point.”
The board now estimates that moving the plant could cost an additional $41.3 million, much more than the $10.5 million offered so far by the city and the state.
The University steam plant is located on the east end of the Stone Arch Bridge. At the beginning of January, after the board’s deadline had passed, the University gave Foster Wheeler Inc. the go-ahead to start remodeling and updating the plant. Work will begin this month, barring any 11th-hour deals to move the generator.
The plant heats buildings on the Twin Cities campus. The 92-year-old boiler complex was purchased by the University in the 1940s and has had only routine maintenance since then. The plant has two buildings; current plans call for the addition of two new boilers at the southeast site and the elimination of the main plant.
Citing antiquated equipment for which replacement parts cannot be manufactured, administrators say the new boilers are needed before the 1998-99 academic year.
Several legislators and environmental groups have joined the city’s protest that the plant is too close to the Mississippi River.
After a meeting with Representative Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, last Thursday, Gov. Arne Carlson voiced his support for moving the plant to a location off the river. The governor’s decision also followed a letter from Reagan to Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton.
The letter stated that the city had missed the Jan. 1 deadline for the city to accept the title and cost of shutting down the old plant and finding a site for the new plant.
Reagan said in his letter that because the city missed the deadline, the regents decided to go ahead with the renovation because the cost of waiting would be too great.
Sayles Belton said she will continue her efforts to have the plant moved. At the same time, she praised the members of the Legislature who are working to help move the steam plant off the river.
Kahn said she hoped the pressure of official opinion would convince the regents to change their plans.
“I wonder if the regents really want to disagree with the governor and the speaker of the House,” Kahn said. “The best solution would be what the University and the city has been working on and move the plant. The governor’s support is a very important step.”
In another move to encourage the plant’s changing locations, Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, introduced a bill that would give $6 million to the University for a steam plant move off the river.
University officials had previously estimated that it would take at least $6 million to move the plant. Pogemiller, who represents the East Bank campus, introduced his bill Feb. 10 and is currently awaiting a hearing before the Jobs, Energy and Community Development Committee. It could take months before any bill is passed and the University sees any of the money.
Reagan said that the process is becoming more expensive the longer the University waits to make repairs to the old plant. He also said that if the University waits any longer to start repairing the plant, there could be cold winter months ahead for students and faculty members without proper heat in some campus buildings.
“We have to consider the economics of this,” Reagan said. “Everyone has seen us raising tuition and not adequately compensating faculty. I think this decision makes good sense.”
Lawmakers could stop the renovation of the steam plant by contributing money to move it off the river, but legislation isn’t the only thing that could interfere with the regents’ plan to renovate the plant.
Several environmental groups, including the Save Our Riverfront Coalition, and Friends of the Mississippi Inc., along with Kahn, have filed an appeal on an emissions permit issued by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
The University was required to obtain the emissions permit from the Pollution Control Agency for air emissions during the renovation of the steam plant.
Attorney Charles Ek, who is handling the appeal, said that opponents stand a chance of stopping the riverfront renovations in court.
“We think we have good legal and factual evidence on why this permit should not have been granted,” Ek said.
If the appeal is successful and the permit is revoked, steam plant renovations will be halted.
Robert Hogg, coordinator of the coalition, said his group wants the plant to move off the river for several reasons.
“There is ongoing coal handling on the river, and it is ugly, and the work will block recreational trails that have been planned for 20 years,” Hogg said.
Kahn said she felt the appeal was going slowly, but she wouldn’t have participated in the appeal process if she didn’t feel that they had a good case and a chance of winning.
Hogg said that the river is the University’s greatest asset, and administrators should take advantage of it.
“They (the regents) are making this project more expensive than it needs to be,” Hogg said. “It will be an embarrassment to the University for the next 50 years.”