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Controversy still plagues tire proposal in Preston
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About 200 people came to Preston on a recent weekend, to protest the proposed tire-burning plant. (MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)
An unusual plan to turn scrap tires into energy has divided the tiny southeastern Minnesota town of Preston. It's a community known for its trout streams, bike paths and scenic beauty. But these days, this once sleepy corner of the state has become the backdrop for protests, lawsuits, and political infighting.

Preston, Minn. — It's a crisp spring day, a few weeks into trout season, and the rambling banks of the Root River are dotted with anglers. Less than a mile down the road, a crowd of about 200 is gathered in a public park.

The people have come to Preston from communities around the region to protest the proposed tire-burning plant. Terry Visgar has traveled from La Crescent, more than an hour away.

"We've been reading about this and hearing about this for about four or five months, even down in La Crescent. We use this river all the time, and then of course it flows into the Mississippi, too," says Visgar.

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Image Kathy Attwood

Evelyn Kruger, who's from a farming community about a dozen miles away, is standing here with friends. She says she's here to protest plans to build one of the world's largest tire-burning plants on the edge of this town.

"This area is so pristine and it's so fragile," says Kruger. "I just worry so for what we're doing to the environment and our children's children."

The group behind this event is the newly-formed Citizens Against Pollution. Organizers plan to launch a petition drive in towns as far away as Iowa and Wisconsin, trying to stop the Heartland Energy and Recycling plant.

The Heartland project would burn 10 million scrap tires a year, turning the waste into energy. The scrap steel from tires would be recycled, and the remaining ash would be used to make concrete. The plant's energy would be sold on the grid.

All of this has protesters like Evelyn Kruger worried about the plant's byproducts, including mercury, dioxins and a whole range of pollutants. They fear the plant's emissions would contaminate fields and rivers, and harm what's considered the backbone of the region's economy -- tourism and agriculture.

There are two other large tire-burning facilities in the U.S., and neither has had a smooth ride. A plant in Illinois has struggled financially, and a facility in Connecticut is part of a federal monitoring program reserved for major polluters.

My great-grandparents homesteaded this area. We've been here for 150 years. So I don't think it would be my intention to destroy this area I have lived in.
- Bob Maust, developer of Heartland Energy and Recycling

Bob Maust is the developer behind the Heartland Energy project. Maust has long ties to the scrap tire industry, including a stint at the tire-burning plant in Illinois. He says he's already poured millions of dollars into the Preston project, which has a price tag of around $30 million.

Maust sits in his living room, where a large picture window offers views of leafy green trees surrounding his property about a quarter mile from the proposed project site. More than anything else, Maust describes himself as a Preston native, someone who has his community's best interests at heart.

"My great-grandparents homesteaded this area. We've been here for 150 years. So I don't think it would be my intention to destroy this area I have lived in," says Maust. "The only reason a plant of this magnitude would be thought of for Preston is because I wanted to bring it to my hometown."

Maust hopes to hire about 35 people to run the facility, which will have an annual payroll of roughly $2 million. He says that's substantial for a small town like Preston, which he says continues to lose its young people because of a lack of employment opportunities.

Maust also says the people fighting his project can't begin to comprehend how it will work, or how modern technology will minimize emissions.

Right now, Maust's project is temporarily on hold as it's reviewed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

It has also been the focus of at least two lawsuits filed by Kathy Attwood's group, Southeastern Minnesotans for Environmental Protection. It's a collection of farmers, businesses and Preston locals who oppose the project.

Over the past two years Attwood has scoured the country, gathering information on the potential plant and any hazards it might pose. She easily rattles off reasons why the plant should be stopped.

Attwood says ultimately the project just doesn't make sense for Minnesota, let alone Preston. Minnesota is one of five states that already recycles scrap tires for things like roadways and shoe soles.

"So to go ahead and permit something like this would be total abuse of public money, on top of the fact that it would environmentally harmful," says Attwood.

Attwood says tires for the Heartland project would have to be trucked in from around the Midwest -- even as far as Canada.

But Heartland's Bob Maust says he has no plans to give up. Instead he wants to pursue a JobZ designation for the tire burning plant. JobZ is a state program that gives tax breaks to new rural businesses.

A state official says as long as the tire burning plant is a controversial project, it will be difficult to qualify for the JobZ program.

Bob Maust says he may have another option. The state JobZ program created 10 zones. One stretches across southern Minnesota. Maust says he was approached by a representative from that JobZ zone. MPR contacted several cities in that region, and all say they're not interested in the tire-burning facility.

On a final note, Democrats continue to investigate ethics complaints against Bob Maust's son-in-law, Greg Davids. Davids represents Preston in the Minnesota House. He's been accused of unfairly using his influence to help the proposal in St. Paul.

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