Rochester, Minn. — In the enormous boiler room at Rochester Public Utilities, Manager of Operations Wally Schlink leads a visitor on a tour of his plant.
"If you look up there, what you're seeing is, those inverted pyramids are coal bunkers. So those are filled with the amount of coal for the day," says Schlink, pointing to two huge funnels two stories above him.
Schlink describes how every piece of machinery in this multi-story plant serves a distinct purpose: turning coal into electricity. After climbing a flight of metal grate stairs to reach the third story of one of the utility's four boilers, he opens a small hatch on its side.
"Take a look in there," he motions.
Heat blasts from the hatch. Inside, it's 900 degrees. Flames are everywhere. They're fueled by coal dust blown from huge turbines underneath. Schlink's goateed face breaks a smile at the sheer enormity of the structure.
Later, in the plant's control room, Schlink stiffens up a bit. He's asked about the results of a report his plant commissioned at the request of the state's pollution control agency. The study examined various plans to reduce emissions while increasing the utility's coal burning to heat a new building for the Mayo Clinic.
"We keep hearing people use the terminology 'the plan,' that the report came out. I think in the paper the other day it said 'RPU's plan,'" he says. "And, we need to keep in mind that this is a screening study, and there's a lot of work left before any of this is used as any kind of action plan. So I just want to keep in mind what the study is and what the study isn't," he cautions.
For Schlink, the study isn't a call to action, but others in the local community say it should be.
All of the utility's four boilers were built prior to the passage of the clean air act in 1970. That means that none of them need to adhere to the law's strict environmental regulations. The MPCA permit allows the utility to burn 73,000 tons more coal a year. The study determined it would cost the utility $3.7 million extra a year for the next twenty years to maintain current emission levels while burning more coal.
But, as Schlink points out, the pollution control agency did not indicate the utility needed to implement the study's findings. If that's so, it's likely harmful emissions from the downtown plant would increase.
The 100 megawatt plant already has the third-worst sulfur emissions rate in the state. The plant burns eastern bituminous coal. This type of coal has five times the amount of sulfur than powder river coal, which is burned in every other plant in Minnesota.
But that's not all the utility's critics are mad about.
The reason the utility needs to burn more coal is to heat a new building owned by the Mayo Clinic. Sara Welch is a power plant expert for the Izaak Walton League.
"Here you have 21st century medicine being practiced in Rochester, and you have a plant not even a mile away that is producing electricity using 19th century technology. And what concerns me the most are the health impacts resulting from this," says Welch.
Rochester Doctor Barbara Yawn shares Welch's concerns.
Two years ago, Yawn conducted a study on the prevalence of asthma in school-aged children in Rochester. Of the almost 3000 children in her study, Yawn discovered that more than 17 percent of them had been diagnosed with asthma. That's more than twice the national average and on par with statistics from children who live in inner city Chicago.
Yawn says she's not sure why Rochester's children have a higher than average incidence of asthma, but, she notes, more harmful emissions from the city's power plant won't help.
"We know we have a big asthma problem. and we know that air pollution increases the asthma attacks or exacerbations," says Yawn. "So why would we want to put more pollutants in the air when we know we have a bunch of people with asthma, and we are going to, very potentially, make their asthma worse?"
Yawn is joined by over a hundred Rochester residents in her criticism of both Rochester Public Utilities and the Mayo Clinic. They contend a world-class health care institution like Mayo shouldn't be at the heart of a plan to increase air pollutants in its hometown.
Jack Jibben is Mayo Clinic's head of facilities. He's also a member of the Rochester Public Utilities board, though he's recused himself from voting on this issue.
Jibben says the permitting process that has garnered the brunt of the criticism is only a small part of the story.
"The MPCA statement is that this project will have an insignificant affect on the environment in Rochester," says Jibben.
He says while the MPCA has permitted Rochester Public Utilities to burn 73,000 tons more coal a year, it's unlikely the utility will do so. Jibben says the permit actually reduces the overall cap on the amount of coal the utility can burn from 350,000 tons to 250,000 tons per year. As a reference, Jibben says Rochester Public Utilities will most likely burn 200,000 tons of coal this year.
60 percent of the heat generated at the utility, Jibben says, is wasted as exhaust. He says Mayo's steamline plan would use some of that exhaust to make the plant more efficient.
"The best way to control pollution is not to burn the energy in the first place," he says. "And that's what this solution does. If this is not approved, we will have to build a fossil fuel plant downtown to replace it so we get the low pressure steam, and we will burn nine and a half million gallons of oil per year, peak, which compares to the 73,000 tons of coal."
But critics say Mayo should look at other alternatives, like asking the utility to import the power needed for the steamline from another, cleaner-burning power plant in the state. Jibben says getting energy from another power plant is possible, but, he says, that's up to Rochester Public Utilities.
"And Mayo has no authority to tell RPU how to do their business," he says.
Critics of the plan disagree.
They say Mayo's prominent position in the community and Jibben's presence on RPU's board are more than enough to influence RPU's business decisions. Ward Lutz is a critic of RPU's plan.
He's also worked at Mayo for 15 years.
He says it should be in his employer's best interest to be seen as a healthcare facility that cares about the environment and health of its community.
"Well, I think they can be maybe an important voice in, when the decision is made, how to respond to this emission control screening study, how the utility should respond to it, and what could ultimately be done to the plant. And maybe weigh in and say 'Yes, we think it's important that we do reduce emissions from this power plant,'" says Lutz.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizen's Board will make a decision on whether or not to require Rochester Public Utilities to implement the emissions study at a public meeting on December 16.