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Incinerator debate: What's next for CG?

City leaders in Cottage Grove are wrestling privately over what the next step should be in the city's fight against a 3M plan to burn third-party waste at its Cottage Grove incinerator, officials said last week.

Some on the five-person Cottage Grove City Council say they want the city to toughen language in a recently passed ban on commercial incineration to limit incineration in the city to only that of waste produced by the company burning it, referred to as captive incineration.

Others have expressed doubts there is any more that can be done at the local level to stop the proposal from going forward.

Mayor Myron Bailey said he isn't sure the city has the legal authority to limit where waste burned at the 3M incinerator comes from. He said there are fears passing such an ordinance could lead to an expensive legal battle.

City Council member Justin Olsen said he is strongly in favor of a strengthened ordinance, despite the legal risks. The first-term council member and liaison to the city's new Environmental Commission likened the move to "going all-in."

"Here's what it boils down to," Olsen said in an interview. "If we as a body feel this is a bad proposal for the people of Cottage Grove, why is there any question whether we would defend those citizens to the full extent of our ability?"

What city can do isn't clear

Whether the city has that ability, however, is up for debate.

The council discussions, including a legal strategy session with the city's attorney earlier this month, come as the pollution control agency prepares to restart the process of amending the incinerator permits.

3M volunteered to suspend its push to begin burning third-party hazardous waste last spring to allow Cottage Grove to form an environmental task force that examined the plan.

Greg Kvaal, a senior engineer with the pollution control agency, said the re-permitting process could begin again as early as April. The permit change, he said would result in "a couple pounds" of additional emissions per year, still well below the facility's limits.

That means the clock is ticking for the city of Cottage Grove to come up with an answer to the question of how to stop the amendments that city officials and local legislators have vehemently opposed.

There's a feeling, though, that the "city is handcuffed" in what it can do to stop the plan, said City Council member Pat Rice at last Monday's public forum on the issue hosted by a concerned citizens group.

Bailey said he believes it's highly likely a city ordinance further limiting what can be burned at the incinerator would lead to a lawsuit from 3M. That, he said could be throwing "money at something we can't win."

"We could say we don't want any outside waste," Bailey said in an interview. "The problem is we don't have a legal leg to stand on. We're not the permitting body."

MPCA will proceed regardless

City officials have unsuccessfully searched for documentation of an agreement between Cottage Grove and 3M they say shows an understanding between the parties that the incinerator would burn only 3M-produced hazardous waste. Bailey said without that, the city's case is harder to make at the local level.

It is unclear, city and pollution control officials say, what impact an amended city ordinance limiting incineration in Cottage Grove to facilities burning only captive waste would have on the current process.

Kvaal, of the pollution control agency, said he believed the agency would proceed with the permit modification, even if Cottage Grove's council passed that type of law.

"We don't enforce city ordinances and basically they would have to try to enforce their own ordinance," he said.

How the city would do that isn't clear.

Despite possible legal challenges, City Council member Jen Peterson also said she is in favor of a strengthened ordinance, saying the city "owe(s) it to the residents of Cottage Grove."

"We really should try to go and pursue this ... because otherwise we've already lost the battle," the state House candidate said. "At this point, with the determination basically being in the hands of the MPCA and out of our hands, we don't have a lot of other options."