Internet site offers U area air emissions information

Robyn Repya

University area residents curious about what’s in the air they’re breathing are now just a click away from finding out – and they might be surprised.

“If more people (were) aware of the polluters and what’s going on, they’d be outraged,” said Jon Osmond, an urban studies senior.

Along with a Macalaster student and neighborhood environmental advocate, Osmond began an examination in September of University-area businesses and the environmental hazards they pose.

The result, available on the Internet since March 1, is comprehensive documentation of the air emissions of businesses in the University area.

“(The Midwest is) one of the worst areas for coal burning, but no one really knows it,” said Justin Eibenholzl, the southeast Minneapolis environmental coordinator who worked on the project.

Because the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency permits hundreds of chemical compounds in varying amounts to be released into the air, it is difficult to discern which business emits the most overall.

Eibenholzl said the Xcel Energy Riverside Generating Plant, which burns coal, is the largest neighborhood emitter because it’s an old facility.

Osmond, who became part of the project through a University work-study program, lives near the plant and has taken a tour with a class. He said the Riverside plant “looked like the inside of a Weber grill.

“That really opened my eyes about how bad things were,” he said.

But plant director Ken Beadell said the ash produced by the plant is probably safer than a grill’s. He said the plant’s emissions are at legal levels, as determined by the MPCA.

Rick Rosvold, the plant’s senior environmental analyst, said environmental data released about the plant, such as the annual Toxic Release Inventory released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is often misleading.

He said a report such as the TRI states how much of a chemical a plant produces, but the reports don’t differentiate between what is released into the air and what is not.

“Much (ash) is sent to a landfill or turned into a product, such as concrete,” Rosvold said.

Rebecca Helgesen, public information officer for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said there is financial incentive in reducing pollutants.

“In the long run they’re really saving money because they’re not paying for hazardous waste disposal,” she said.

The Osvold Company on University Avenue Southeast took note of concerns about environmental emissions, switching last June from a solvent-based adhesive to a water-based version in order to lower air emissions and improve working conditions.

“We wanted to be more friendly with the environment and still make a good product,” said General Manager Lorri Utoft.

The Osvold Company – which has been in the University area since the 1950s – manufactures cabinets, fine wood and corporate furniture and also made the University’s computer kiosks.

The company was rewarded for its efforts to reduce pollutants through a reduction in the MPCA fee for its air permit.

Although large business’ pollutants are a concern, Helgesen said cars and buses emit exponentially more toxins into the air.

“In terms of overall air pollutants, vehicles have been taking over as a much bigger source,” Helgesen said.

She said vehicles are more environmentally sound than they used to be but said the number of cars per family has increased. She said people commute to work from much greater distances than they would have a few years ago.

Helgesen said it is not accurate to blame large factories and plants for environmental difficulties.

“The big sources are only a small piece of the pollution pie,” she said.

Eibenholzl said he hopes the Web-based release of the inventory – at www.secomo.org – causes businesses to be more accountable for their emissions.

“I hope they’ll at least be aware that people are looking at what they’re doing,” Eibenholzl said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg for this kind of information.”