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Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Yanked Article from the Twin Cities Daily Planet

Avidor has been on the case pointing out that an investigative article on a proposal for a Phillips wood burning plant promoted by Michael Krause was pulled after Mayoral spokesperson Jeremy Hanson commented on it. Avidor linked to the google cache of the article. In case the cache goes away, I'm posting it here for historical purposes. I'm looking forward to the corrected article by the Daily Planet.

Green Burning or Greenwashing?

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By Dan Gordon , Special to the TC Daily Planet

A proposed biomass plant in Phillips heats up a discussion about the safety of “green” fuel sources

Phillips, with almost 20,000 residents, is one of the oldest and largest neighborhoods in Minneapolis. Historically, Phillips also has been a place scarred with toxins left by the corporations that made the neighborhood their home. Its soil holds the city’s highest concentration of arsenic, the legacy of a former pesticide manufacturing site that stood uncapped for 30 years. Given that history, when a company announces plans to invest in the neighborhood and create well- paying jobs for residents by supplying environmentally-friendly energy to local businesses, it sounds like a dream come true.

The project is an $83 million generator promoted by Michael Krause, former director of the Green Institute, a local non-profit promoting sustainable energy use and green design. In 2001 the Green Institute began a project to transform a garbage transfer station near Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue into a 22.5 megawatt generator fueled by the incineration of biomass composed of urban tree waste and agricultural residue. Partnered with them in the endeavor was Midtown Eco-Energy, an entity now managed by Kandiyohi Development, a for-profit consulting firm that Krause helped create.

The project partners, with unanimous support from the Minneapolis city council, went to Washington in 2003 to lobby Congressmember Martin Sabo and Senator Paul Wellstone. They walked away with a $1.9 million Department of Energy grant to study the feasibility of the project. The Green Institute got to work laying the groundwork for the project—setting up an engineering study, soil sampling and a financial model. And then things started to fall apart.

“We did the feasibility work and decided not to move forward with it,” says Carl Nelson, director of the Green Institute Community Energy Project. “There’s definitely a lot of wood chips out there, but when you look at the other markets for woodchips—mulch, animal bedding, and things like that, there’s not that much left. You might be able to get fuel for the next year, but when you look 20 years out, it’s just too risky. ”

Kandiyohi project director Kim Heavey says that the wood supply is sustainable, and, furthermore, that the generator will lower pollution by reducing the amount of methane-emitting wood waste in landfills. But others agree that high demand for wood waste keeps the majority from ever reaching these landfills.

Anders Rydaker is the director of District Energy, the operator of a biomass facility that provides heating to buildings in downtown St. Paul. “We already use 300,000 tons of municipal wood waste a year,” he says. “There isn’t enough wood in the area to fuel both generators.”

Undaunted, Kandiyohi continued to support the project. Around the same time Krause left the Green Institute to become director of Kandiyohi development. Allegiances at city hall also shifted in the same direction. Previously, according to Nelson, city hall staff had been authorized to negotiate exclusively with the Green Institute on the project. But in November of 2005, the Transportation and Public Works Committee did an about-face,-halting their negotiations and opening up the project to bidders. The only bidder, their former partner Kandiyohi, stepped in and gained control of the project last June.

Kandiyohi continues to plan for the project, despite the fact that as of yet no company has stepped forward to sign a power purchase agreement for the energy. The group assembled a cast of characters to pave the way, many of whom raise questions about conflicts of interest. For example, the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development committee has recommended that a $78 million Empowerment Zone bond be issued to the project, “one of the largest the city has ever issued,” according to Heavey. Heavey also happens to be the Empowerment Zone’s former director. More questions arise about the project’s legal counsel, the Smith Partners law firm. The firm was criticized by community groups for serving as project manager for the construction of the 35W access project. Although the firm has no transportation planning experience, they represent Abbot Northwestern, Allina, and other corporations that stand to profit from the proposed freeway construction on Lake Street. Kandiyohi plans to sell steam heat energy to these same corporations.

“None of the energy actually benefits the people living there,” says Carol Overland, a utilities attorney who spent 20 years living in the Phillips neighborhood. “They don’t get any access to cheaper power from the plant, they just get the emissions.”

Krause claims the project carries the overwhelming support of Phillips residents, as well as the Minneapolis Planning Commission (which Krause was a member of until last year) and environmental groups Clean Water Action (of which Krause was a former board member) and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). Dr. David Wallinga, Director of IATP's Food and Health Program. denies that the group supports the project. Kandiyohi is also in the process of negotiating “good neighbor agreements” with six local community groups. The agreements promise to create jobs for neighborhood residents and raise the possibility of creating a community benefits fund “at its sole discretion.”

Some community members, like Alan Pass of the East Phillips Neighborhood Improvement Coalition, were originally supportive of the project. Pass was active in the Green Institute when it directed the project, but admits he hasn’t kept up to date with new developments since the intellectual rights were sold over to Kandiyohi. Members of other groups claim they weren’t told the whole story when Kandiyohi made its presentation before their boards.

“They [Kandiyohi] made the presentation to our development committee, not the environment committee, so we found out about it afterwards. There were some concerns that arose after an analysis of their permit application,” says Carol Greenwood of the Seward Neighborhood Group, another organization Kandiyohi is negotiating with. “Alan Muller, who works as an advisor for Neighbors against the Burner in St. Paul, said the permit would allow them to emit up to a million tons of pollutants a year, and to burn up to 30% garbage, something we were not aware of.”

Muller leads an organization called Green Delaware that has fought its own struggles against incinerators. “Somehow we’ve been sold the idea that wood is a clean fuel,” he says. “It’s not. It produces a lot of fine particulates, at least equal to those of coal. The whole environmental regulation process hasn’t yet come to grips with these particles, and studies on their health effects have only begun in the last several years.”

Construction of the generator is slated to begin this September, assuming the air permit is approved. A public meeting on the issue was held August 9 at the Franklin Library for residents to voice their concerns. There was some confusion as to what exactly can be burned as “biomass,” a term defined differently by each state’s pollution control agency. Midtown Eco-Energy’s public presentation claims it will only be burning clean urban wood waste from trees and other woody plants. But their permit application allows for the burning of “wood products such as plywood, particle board, strand board, and other types of products bound by glues and resins.”

“We don’t plan on burning anything but tree waste,” Heavey reassures. “But we could burn some clean construction waste if we wanted to in the future.”

As of yet, no further public hearings are planned for this development. Public comments about the project can be submitted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency until August 27 by writing to

Posted: Sun, 08/26/2007 - 23:05


Alan Muller said...

I'm quoted in both versions of the story and I think they are both pretty accurate.

One point that is a bit subtle:

The draft permit alone for the burner doesn't *clearly* authorize the burning of garbage. HOWEVER, there is a Minnesota law saying in effect that any solid fuel "boiler" can burn up to 30% "Refuse Derived Fuel (ground up garbage)as a matter of right.

Minn. Stat. 116.90 Subd. 2. Use of refuse-derived fuel.

Subd. 2. Use of refuse-derived fuel. (a) Existing or new solid fuel fired boilers may utilize
refuse-derived fuel in an amount up to 30 percent by weight of the fuel feed stream under the
following conditions:


(c) The agency may not require, as a condition of using refuse-derived fuel under this
section, any additional monitoring or testing of a solid fuel fired boiler's air emissions beyond
the monitoring or testing required by state or federal law or by the terms of the solid fuel fired
boiler's permit issued by the agency.
History: 1991 c 337 s 56; 1992 c 593 art 1 s 33

According to the MPCA folk I've talked to, a permit change would be needed to burn garbage. Maybe so.

The key point is that under MN laws and regs are they now are, if a "biomass" burner goes in, the community can't be confident that it might not end up burning garbage. Historically, regulators and pols tend to allow more types of fuel to be burned when an incinerator needs a bailout--and they usually do.

Here's a link to more info:

Alan Muller

By the way, I just did a search of the Planet site and found no articles on the burner from this year.