One less restriction for U steam plant

Bei Hu

A federal agency granted the University an exemption from federal laws that could have significantly delayed University efforts to refurbish the Southeast Steam Plant on the Mississippi River.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency ruled late last week that the University does not have to abide by federal flood management acts. The acts restrict developments in areas that are susceptible to flooding.
The acts were among legal documents that could potentially delay or even abort the steam plant renovation. Officials of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Attorney General’s Office are still trying to determine whether the refurbishment has to follow state environmental guidelines.
Breach of the federal flood management regulations could have potentially resulted in a cutoff of all federal aid to the University. An executive order signed by President Jimmy Carter gives federal agencies the authority to help enforce the acts.
Questions remain as to whether the refurbishment must meet the state building code’s flood-proofing standards.
Federal law gives the agency authority to regulate developments within designated flood-prone areas, known as flood plains.
According to maps published by the agency, the southeast facility by the Stone Arch Bridge sits in a designated floodway. A floodway is part of a flood plain, and construction on it will raise the water level during floods.
Last September, Department of Natural Resources officials said the steam plant renovation would be at odds with the federal acts.
Because the project would improve the steam plant by more than half its value, it might need clearance through the agency.
However, University representatives convinced the agency that the renovation is necessary for the preservation of the aging steam plant, which is listed on the National Register of Historical Sites.
The plant’s location would not be changed, only extended vertically, said James Payne, an outside attorney who has been consulting the University on the project. The University plan proposes raising the steam plant’s roof by 40 feet to install new boilers.
Department of Natural Resources officials have also been asked to interpret a state shoreland management act. The act regulates industrial developments on waterfronts.
Department of Natural Resources officials are still determining if the shoreland act, usually enforced through city ordinances, could directly apply to the University.
University representatives have argued that the school should be exempt from the act because of its land-grant status and because the steam plant predated the act’s passage.
Dale Homuth, a regional hydrologist of the Department of Natural Resources, said his department opposes the renovation primarily because it would diminish the riverbanks’ scenic value. “We would prefer the facility be moved off river,” he said.
Given the federal agency’s endorsement, Homuth said, the renovation must meet state standards for modifying buildings in flood plains.
Standards include flood-proofing all vulnerable utilities, such as boilers, or raising all critical facilities above flood elevation levels.
“Those (standards) are fairly easily met with that building,” Homuth said, adding that meeting them should not be too expensive for the University.
Payne said he questions whether the state requirements apply to the University’s renovation plan.
“I think it’s still an issue as to whether we are in the flood plain at all,” he said, citing a University survey that suggests otherwise.
But, he added, “We are certainly prepared to discuss the issue with the Department of Natural Resources. We certainly are cooperating.”