Groups opposed to coal plant permit

by Bei Hu

A draft permit that would allow the University to proceed with its steam plant renovation plan drew opposition during its 30-day public notice period.
Seven responses were received from groups and individuals during the public notice period, which began June 15, said Dave Beil, a staff engineer at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Six of the comments were rushed in on the afternoon of July 15, shortly before the public notice period ended. All of the comments were against renovation of coal-fueled steam plants on the river and proposed constructing a natural gas-fired plant; some recommended building a gas plant at an off-river location.
“There are very few comments on the permit itself,” Beil said. “What they really boil down to is they don’t want the permit issued.”
Although the permit would regulate the University’s three steam plants, the two plants on the Minneapolis campus are at the center of the debate.
The coal-fired riverfront plants heat and cool the Minneapolis campus. The southeast steam plant, located by the Stone Arch Bridge, is more than 90 years old and needs major renovations. But there has been controversy in recent years as to whether there should be a renovation at all.
Opponents of the renovation, including some lawmakers and environmentalists, think it would jeopardize environmental quality along the river. They have urged the University to build a new natural gas-burning steam plant at an off-river site. Some opponents have called for the complete closure of the riverfront plants to make room for public recreation.
The pollution control agency drafted the air emission permit and a nine-member citizens’ board, which is part of the agency, will discuss the issue at a meeting in August. The citizens’ board will review public comments at the meeting and may make changes to the permit. A vote on whether to issue the permit will follow the discussions.
Pending the board’s approval, the current permit would require the University to shut down its main steam plant next to the East Bank campus. However, the permit would allow the University to go ahead with the renovation of its southeast steam plant.
The University would retain the current on-river sites, although the southeast steam plant would have to burn more natural gas. The permit proposes the installation of three new boilers in the plant; two of them would burn natural gas and sulfur fuel oil, and a third would use coal and wood waste. The plant’s two original coal-powered boilers would serve as backup equipment.
University officials have said repeatedly that they are still weighing the option of constructing a new off-river plant. But they insist that some institution take over the preservation of the southeast steam plant, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. They also demand that the new site be suitable for immediate construction.
Roger Paschke, University associate vice president for Finance and Operations, said in June: “The University is at a critical point now where we really cannot continue to delay construction of some heating facilities, whether it’s renovation of existing facilities or construction of new facilities.”
University officials also insist that a source be found for the extra funds that they believe will be needed to build a new steam plant.
Several collaborative attempts by the University and other organizations to find a new plant site have failed. University officials would agree to build a new off-river plant only if a satisfactory site and necessary funding were located before the agency issues a permit for the renovation of the southeast steam plant.
The public notice period, which is required for permits that authorize pollution above a certain level, brought forward several perspectives.
In a letter to the agency, Peter Bachman, executive director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, asked the agency to deny the permit for the renovation plan. He said the University had breached its own promise by entering into a contract to refurbish the steam plant prior to conducting an environmental review.
Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-Minneapolis) and Minneapolis City Council member Joan Campbell, two longtime opponents of the renovation, also wrote against issuing the permit.
Campbell has even threatened to challenge the University to a legal duel. She supports a zoning code amendment that would bar the University from renovating the steam plants on the river.
A Minneapolis City Council vote on the amendment is tentatively scheduled for July 26.