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MPCA to Cottage Grove: 'We can't say 'no' to 3M incinerator plan

Jeff Smith, manager of the MPCA's industrial division, said there was nothing to keep the agency from approving new permits for the facility that would allow the company to burn non-3M waste. Bulletin photo by Jon Avise

State pollution control officials painted a bleak picture for opponents of a 3M Co. plan to expand the sources of waste it burns at the company's Cottage Grove incinerator, telling more than 100 people at a recent public hearing that the agency is unlikely to reject the requested permit changes.

A Minnesota Pollution Control Agency public meeting on 3M's incinerator plan turned heated last week, with frustrated residents venting their anger at MPCA officials for allowing the amended permits to move forward.

Telling close to 150 residents who packed bleachers at Cottage Grove Middle School that the company's plan to destroy non-3M hazardous chemical waste at the facility is "technically adequate" and meets state and federal emissions limits, Jeff Smith, manager of the MPCA's industrial division, said there was nothing to keep the agency from approving new permits for the facility that would allow the company to burn non-3M waste.

"We cannot say 'no,'" Smith said to jeers during the more than two-hour-long meeting April 10. "If a facility can comply with federal and state environmental regulations we cannot say 'no.'"

Or, as Cottage Grove City Council member Justin Olsen phrased it in a question to MPCA officials: "There's slim to no chance you'll say no to this and slim just left town."

3M already destroys hazardous solvent materials from across its North American operations at the four-decade-old Cottage Grove incinerator. But more efficient production processes have led to a drop in waste, 3M officials have said.

To keep the incinerator operating efficiently it has used large amounts of natural gas to supplement its own waste; the non-3M solvents would replace that fuel, they say, saving the company up to $2 million per year.

In a statement released through a 3M spokesperson, Vickie Batroot, site director at 3M Cottage Grove, said: "[3M] want[s] the community to have as much information about this as possible. The incinerator is a state-of-the-art facility that is used to safely destroy waste materials in a way that helps keep our community safe and is environmentally sound."

Any benefit to CG?

MPCA and 3M officials have characterized the up to one ton increase in emissions per year that will result as "minimal."

That wasn't a view shared by most of those in attendance, many of whom shouted their displeasure at 3M and state pollution control officials. Attendees asked -- some with the help of a microphone, others amplified only by their shouts -- why 3M officials weren't taking part in the question-and-answer session and wondered aloud why the company was being allowed to import more waste when it is already dealing with drinking water contamination issues in the east metro.

Representatives from 3M did participate in an informal question period before the meeting began. It did not answer questions during the MPCA-run informational meeting and public forum.

A group opposed to the plan, the Coalition of Concerned Citizens of Cottage Grove, last week filed a petition with the MPCA requesting a detailed environmental review of the health risks associated with the incinerator.

Marcy Nolte, a spokeswoman for the group, said she and others in the Coalition aren't opposed to 3M and what it has done at the incinerator since it first fired in 1971. The group, she said, is opposed to the additional waste that will be trucked into the city and destroyed in Cottage Grove.

"There's no benefit to Cottage Grove, I don't think," Nolte said in an interview. "The only benefit is 3M saving money. It's pollution for profit. There's no disputing that."

State pollution control officials are accepting written public comment on the proposed permit amendments until April 23. That input will be presented to Citizens' Board members prior to the May 22 hearing.

Ralph Pribble, an MPCA spokesman, acknowledged the strained relationship between Cottage Grove residents and 3M, which has operated its manufacturing facility in the city since 1948, during last week's meeting.

"We understand there is little to no trust of 3M," Pribble told the crowd. "We understand that."

The biggest applause line of the night came from Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove. In, 2010, Sieben authored legislation that would have halted the 3M plan. Under the threat of veto from then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the language did not reach the floor version of that year's omnibus environmental bill.

"I have so far failed to see how burning waste from outside the state would benefit us here and in the surrounding area," Sieben said.

Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, who at a past public meeting defended 3M over the proposal, thanked residents for offering their input.