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January 26, 2005
St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota Pollution Control Agency staff has consistently advised the Citizen Board that there's no need for further environmental testing for the Heartland Energy project. But close to 150 people crammed into the basement board room at MPCA headquarters in downtown St. Paul to strongly voice their disagreement.
Dozens came from Preston on a chartered bus, while others drove in from as far away as Decorah, Iowa and La Crosse, Wisconsin. They came to voice concerns about things like mercury emissions and the threat of dioxin poisoning.
Former Preston Mayor Dave Pechulis was among the 50 who testified against the proposal. He said the decision to order more environmental testing should have been made a long time ago. He implored the board to put an end to a lengthy battle by ordering an Environmental Impact Statement.
"In the last two years, we have collectively spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the issue, and I kind of wonder why," said Pechulis. "This has been in front of the PCA for going on two years, and during that time could we not have done an EIS and probably have completed it by now?"
Residents in southeastern Minnesota have objected to the plant, which would burn 200,000 discarded tires each week. Opponents fear the plant and its 20-story smokestack will pollute the air and water in the area.
The developer has said the plant would bring 30 jobs or more, create electricity and chip away at the millions of tires stockpiled across the country.
During the hearing, State Rep. Andy Welti, a Democrat, urged the citizens' panel to order an environmental impact statement, saying the tire-burning technology is new and untested at full scale.
Mike Murphy, an engineer working with Heartland, said the technology has been used successfully in plants that burn different types of fuel.
Kevin Kain, who is MPCA's lead manager on the project, said the agency has done its research and an environmental impact statement was unnecessary.
Frank Wright, a Lanesboro resident who made the two-hour trip to St. Paul, said more study is warranted.
"This is not just another power plant. This is an experiment," Wright said. "'Let's burn 10,000 tires a day for the next 10 years and see what happens.' That's how it appears to many of us."
In addition, governmental bodies from neighboring states also submitted resolutions urging the board to require additional testing. In a letter to the MPCA read during the hearing, La Crosse Mayor John Medinger raised the possibility of cross-border litigation, should the project proceed without further testing.
Finally, just before midnight, board chair and MPCA commissioner Sheryl Corrigan called for a vote. The result was 6-1 in favor of further study, with only Corrigan voting against.
Among other things, the board said it needed more information about the possibility of toxic ash and the number of vehicles that would travel through Preston to deliver tires to the plant.
Bob Maust is the man behind the Heartland Energy Project. He's a Preston native who introduced the plan to turn scrap tires into energy three years ago. The MPCA initially approved his project. But a lawsuit filed by a local group opposed to Heartland prompted a judge to send the matter back to MPCA for review.
Maust sat at a long table surrounded by his lawyer and project engineer. Doing an environmental impact statement is very expensive. In the past, developers for other projects have abandoned their plans rather than face the costs. Following the vote, Maust had little to say.
"No comment today. No comment. I think you better call me tomorrow," said Maust.
And while the vote came as a blow for Maust, for Nadine Wise the night was a huge victory. Wise heads Citizens Against Pollution, one of the groups responsible for organizing against the tire burner. She says it was a very emotional evening.
"I got so scared I started crying. But then I realized it was really going to happen ... it was too much to believe that it was actually going to happen," said Wise. "All of these people that have put energy into this and it's come true -- it's just a major relief that there will be an EIS."
The MPCA's decision to order an EIS will now go back before a Fillmore County judge for approval. And it's possible Maust may file litigation of his own against the agency.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)