It’s not too late to change course on steam plant

By Julie

This is one more sad chapter in an unpleasant story that few people understand. The fact is, many parties have dropped the ball on this issue. Chief among them is the University, which has failed to pay attention to the environmental implications of its decision. Though others could have done more than they did, the University ultimately must answer for this unwise use of our Mississippi River resource. People need to understand the history of the issue in order to understand why the University is at fault. In 1988, knowing that it would have to replace the southeast steam plant in 10 years, the University of Minnesota hired CRS Sirrine, an engineering firm, to evaluate its energy options. There is no indication that the University instructed CRS Sirrine to attend to land use or pollution issues, nor is there any indication that the University consulted its own expert faculty members on environmental questions. As a leading public institution, the University should have paid attention to the environmental implications of its energy choices.
In 1990, the Board of Regents briefly considered building a gas plant. For reasons that remain veiled, it instead signed a contract with Foster Wheeler, Inc. in 1992 to refurbish the existing southeast coal plant. The contract was conditional upon receiving an air pollution permit. At this point, the University could have exercised environmental leadership and made plans to build an off-river gas-burning plant. Instead, it opted to build what it calls a “fuel-flexible” plant.
To the University, fuel flexibility means being able to burn the cheapest fuels as the market fluctuates. But in reality, “fuel flexible” is a euphemism for coal. The University is building a state-of-the-art plant with equipment that will burn coal. Though the Pharmacy Corp. of America permit now requires the facility to burn 70 percent gas, it is naive to think that the University won’t try to increase the percentage of coal when the permit is up for renewal in three years. And no matter how “clean” the coal technology is, it still produces far more pollution and greenhouse gases than gas does.
Environmentalists were understandably upset when they learned that the University had signed a contract committing to coal before anyone had done an environmental assessment worksheet or an environmental impact statement. Under pressure, the University volunteered to do an EIS, and the Environmental Quality Board proceeded to examine many options, including a gas-powered plant off the river.
When the EIS was completed in 1995, the groups involved came to markedly different conclusions. Environmental and neighborhood groups read the analysis and perceived that a gas-burning plant off the river would be less polluting and less expensive than the University’s proposed fuel-flexible plant. The University read it and decided to proceed with its current plan. Throughout the debate, the University has maintained that the on-river coal plant is the most cost-effective option. Minnesotans for an Energy-Efficient Economy and the Save Our Riverfront Coalition have consistently demonstrated that an off-river gas plant would be cheaper, partly because of the availability of long-term, fixed-price gas contracts. This important fact has been ignored by the University, partly because supporting data comes from analyses done by NorAm, a company defeated in the bidding process for the steam plant renovation.
Early on, the City of Minneapolis and state legislators joined local groups in opposing the riverside coal plant. All agreed that the University’s plan is shortsighted, environmentally damaging and not at all consistent with the overarching plan for the Mississippi River set forth in the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area designation. But nobody moved swiftly or aggressively enough to stop the plan dead in its tracks. Gov. Arne Carlson, though he has recently demonstrated strong support for an off-river plant, failed to pay attention to the matter back when changing course would have been easier. And all of us — you and I — failed to lobby our city and state representatives to put pressure on the University.
Environmentally ethical behavior begins with paying attention. You and I must start paying attention to what is happening to the river and stop assuming that somebody else will take care of it. Unfortunately, this particular story might be over. Preliminary site preparations at the southeast plant have already begun.
If the University was to reassess its decision using 1997 cost data, and stop relying on data from 1992, and if the Legislature, the governor, the City of Minneapolis and the public were to keep up the pressure, it’s not too late to build an off-river gas plant. Ultimately, however, if the coal plant is rebuilt on the river, the University will bear responsibility because it failed to attend to the environmental and land-use consequences of its decision.
Julie Bach is a member of Friends of the Mississippi River and a graduate student.