Still opposed, steam plant plan advances

Lynne Kozarek

Despite continued wrangling with the city council and state lawmakers, the University continues its plans to renovate the Southeast Steam Plant.
Foster Wheeler Twin Cities Inc., the construction firm hired by the University to renovate the plant, began removing hazardous waste such as asbestos and transformers from the site last month. The firm will begin its larger renovation efforts later this year when it refits the plant with new boilers and other equipment.
According to Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, the House version of a bill to lend the University $6 million to move the steam plant off the river was stripped on Thursday from the Government Operations Finance Bill and is on its last legs.
The bill’s last chance for passage is in the Environmental Finance Conference Committee, which will meet sometime in May.
“There’s still hope,” Kahn said, that steam plant funding could be added to the bill before it goes to the House floor.
University officials have gone ahead with plant construction in spite of the bill.
“We are on a two-year schedule and the project should be completed by 1999,” said Bill Higdon, plant manager at Foster Wheeler. “During construction, the main Minneapolis (municipal) plant will have to provide heat and steam for the Minneapolis campus.”
Higdon said workers will begin tearing walls down and preparing for larger renovation efforts within the plant when the University issues a demolition permit to his firm. The permit was supposed to have been issued on Tuesday but excessive paperwork delayed the permit.
Kahn and the Friends of the Mississippi Inc. conservation group have filed an appeal on an emissions permit issued by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
The location of the steam plant, situated on the east end of the Stone Arch Bridge on the East Bank, has been a matter of concern for years. The plant has come under particular scrutiny since a January ultimatum set by the University for government funding passed.
Gov. Arne Carlson and Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton have both supported moving the plant off-river, but the city hasn’t been able to come up with the money needed to help the University relocate the facility.
When the city failed to meet the University’s Jan. 1 deadline for financial support, the school proceeded as planned.
The University originally wanted $6 million to move the plant from the river. After the deadline, when the University hadn’t seen any city funds, they instructed Foster Wheeler to go ahead with construction because of rising costs.
Board of Regents Chairman Thomas Reagan gave Foster Wheeler the go-ahead to begin renovation.
“People have to understand that after January 1 (waiting would cost) a great deal more money,” Reagan said. “For anyone to suggest now that we move the plant would mean in upwards of $40 million more dollars.”
Despite the projected cost, the city continues to protest the steam plant renovation.
The Minneapolis City Council voted in March to block renovation, saying the University needed a special permit from the city to build or renovate on the site where the steam plant is located.
The University disputed the city’s jurisdiction over the renovation.
“The University has autonomy established in our constitution,” Reagan said. “We were hopeful we could work something out, but the city couldn’t come up with the money. We can’t just cease and desist.”
Kahn disagreed with Reagan and said she has plenty of support from the governor, the mayor and the Legislature.
Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, introduced a bill in the Senate in February allocating $6 million to move the plant away from the river.
The bill has not been approved, although it has passed several key committees. The governor has also voiced support for moving the plant.
“The governor’s first goal is to see that the (Pogemiller) legislation goes through,” said Carlson spokesman Brian Dietz. “He views the Mississippi River area as a resource for all.”
The University, citing rising construction costs, maintains that $6 million isn’t enough to justify stopping construction.
Meanwhile, with the unresolved controversy surrounding the plant, Kahn said the University should not move forward with renovations.
“Does going ahead make any sense when legal issues are pending?” said Kahn. “The University is hemorrhaging money on a gamble that they’re going to be right, and very good legal council is telling us they’re not.”