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Preston divided over tire-burning plant
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Scrap tires (MPR file photo)
On a hill just outside of Preston, one of the state's largest ethanol plants turns millions of kernels of corn into fuel. A local businessman is hoping to build another kind of plant right next door. A tire burning plant. The proposal calls for a $38 million facility that would burn discarded tires, turning them into energy, steel and cement. The controversy over the proposal has transformed this quiet town of 1,500 into a hotbed of civic activism. And many people in Preston welcome the change.

Preston, Minn. — There are a lot of new faces in Preston's city government. Dave Pechulis is now mayor. And the four-person city council has two new members.

Most people in town trace the political change back to a council meeting last October, when council members debated the proposed Heartland Energy tire burning plant. The mayor at that time, Clarence Quanrud, was in favor of the plant and he wanted the town behind it, too. More than 100 citizens attended the meeting that night. They were concerned the plant would pollute the town's air and water.

"The mayor at that time actually was borderline hostile to people who did have legitimate questions," Pechulis recalls, saying the meeting infuriated him.

Mike McGarvey was there too. He says Quanrud wouldn't respond to citizen concerns, but he did give them another option.

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Image The Pro Corn plant in Preston

"The mayor made the statement, 'There's the election in two weeks, and if you don't like it, well, there's the election,'" he recalls.

McGarvey and Pechulis ran as write-in candidates -- Pechulis for mayor and McGarvey for city council. And they won.

Five months later, the town of Preston looks much the same, but certain things have changed. The city council has a tougher time agreeing on things. More people regularly attend town meetings. And everywhere you go, residents are talking about the proposed tire burning plant and the man behind it.

Bob Maust has an office set up in an old warehouse. It's on the site where he'd like to build the tire burning plant. His desk is bare, except for a large blueprint of the proposed plant.

Maust, who has lived in Preston for most of his life, says the development will bring jobs and property tax revenue to a town that needs both, and he doesn't have much tolerance for people who are against it.

"It's like mosquitoes. They come and go and it's just a part of life," says Maust. "They can remember seeing a tire burning in a wood pile and a lot of black smoke, and they don't understand that this plant doesn't give off any odors, doesn't give off any smoke."

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Image Unloading old tires

As a fuel source, tires are more potent than coal. And they are plentiful. The tires discarded each year by Americans would stretch around the globe three times.

Maust says his plant would make the most of something nobody else wants.

"Once the rubber is burned away and used for energy, then the steel becomes available to be sold as scrap. The ash that remains is collected and sent to a cement mill, where it becomes concrete," Maust says.

Dozens of plants across the country burn tire scraps for energy. But Maust's plant would be the first to recover and reuse every ounce of the tire.

"The concept itself is like a dream come true. It's like a 100 percent use of something nobody wants and the economy has trouble getting rid of," says Kathy Atwood, a Preston resident.

Atwood acknowledges the plant sounds great, but she's dead set against it. She moved to Preston from the Twin Cities with her family 15 years ago.

Atwood worries tire burning will pollute the environment. She thinks the state should require an environmental impact study before anything is built.

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Image Energy plant in South Dakota

Last year, she helped form a citizen's group, Southestern Minnesotans for Environmental Protection. Atwood says the group's biggest setback came in February, when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency ruled an environmental impact study wasn't necessary.

The citizen's group is suing the MPCA to overturn the decision. The case is still pending. The agency has done preliminary studies that show the tire burning plant would be much cleaner than any coal-fired plant in the state. But Atwood is skeptical.

"There are a lot of issues with the air emmissions, and with the land use and the water and the way it would affect this area, when you think about burning 375 tons of tires a day," says Atwood.

Developer Bob Maust says if he's forced to do an environmental impact statement, it could cost $1 million and might take up to five years to complete. In the end, he says, it would show local residents what the preliminary studies already say -- the plant would have no significant environmental impact.

"There are no more whistles and bells that you can hang on to a plant like we've designed here, to make it any more environmentally friendly," says Maust.

City Council member Mike McGarvey says the citizens of Preston aren't convinced. "Yes, we're using the greatest, most wonderful, new supersonic tool in the universe, allegedly. But why wouldn't you want the people of this town to feel safe? Just do an environmental survey, that way you get the entire town's support behind you," says McGarvey.

The Victory Cafe in downtown Preston is only a mile from the proposed plant. Owner Sandy Hurley says a lot of her customers are opposed to the plant, and she feels the same way.

"I'm not sure in my own mind that we know enough about what it's going to do to our water and our air down here," says Hurley "Ten years down the road, I don't want us to look back and say, I wish we hadn't done that."

Developer Bob Maust is a bit incredulous it's been so difficult to sell a project that will generate more than 20 new jobs in town. He says some of the jobs will pay as much as $60,000 a year.

Maust does have plenty of supporters in Preston. City council member Jerry Skeeval is one.

"There's a small but vocal group -- and they'll object to me saying this -- that doesn't want business in town, especially this one," says Skeeval. "I happen to think it's the best thing to come along in a long time ... some people just don't like any progress."

"There's no question that if the tire burning plant is sucessful, and if it lives up to its expectation to provide employment, it will be a big boost to community," says John Torgrimson, the editor of the local newspaper.

The tire burning plant is supposed begin operating in the spring of 2005. No one in town knows if that will happen. But council member Mike McGarvey says one thing is certain: the controversy has made Preston a better place to live.

"The way that it's changed this town is that there's a lot more people that are getting a lot more involved, which is beautiful, becuase that's how its supposed to be."

Mayor Dave Pechulis says he's looking forward to eventually moving past the tire burning issue. He has to balance the city budget and he wants to build a new rec center in town. But he says no matter what issue tops the agenda, he hopes the weekly city council meetings will be packed with Preston citizens voicing their concerns.

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