Incinerator opposition: more emotions than emissions?The city of Cottage Grove hopes to make its case against a 3M proposal to burn outside waste at its incinerator in the city before a state board — but when they do will there be much to back it up?
The city of Cottage Grove hopes to make its case against a 3M proposal to burn outside waste at its incinerator in the city before a state board — but when they do will there be much to back it up?
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency officials last week reiterated that emissions would increase minimally — akin to the level of pollution released by a single lawnmower, they said — at the 3M corporate incinerator if the company’s plan to begin accepting third-party hazardous waste at the facility is approved.
But the city’s fight is about more than just emissions, the city’s mayor said.
“When is not much more not enough?” Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey asked. “That’s the real key behind this.”
3M’s plan, which the company says will save it up to $2 million per year by cutting the use of fuel oils necessitated by a drop in waste within the company, has drawn fire from elected officials in Cottage Grove since it was publicly introduced last spring. It has sparked a contentious yearlong debate over the 40-year-old incinerator that burns hazardous chemical waste from 3M operations across North America.
Pollution control agency officials, though, said last week that debate has been over a proposal that would increase air pollution released by the facility far less than the impact that residents’ gas-fueled lawnmowers have on Cottage Grove’s air quality.
The increase in Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) released by the incinerator due to 3M’s proposed permit amendments are equivalent to “the cleanest, newest” lawnmower running for 40 hours, said Trevor Shearen, an air quality engineer with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
Add up all the lawnmowers cutting all the lawns in Cottage Grove during the summer months, he said, and it’s not even close: lawnmowers are the bigger polluter.
The lawnmower analogy doesn’t, however, tell the whole story. 3M’s burner, which has incinerated millions of pounds of hazardous waste per year for the last four decades, also emits heavy metals (like mercury, chromium, cadmium and lead) and particulate matter into the air.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, heavy metals can damage living things at low concentrations, and tend to accumulate in the food chain.
“(Metals) are emitted now, and presumably some of the waste they get will contain metals,” Shearen said, adding that the 3M incinerator emits them at very low levels.
Pollution control agency officials, and Gary Garner, 3M’s incinerator operations manager, stressed the facility’s effectiveness in eliminating chemicals deemed hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency: The 3M incinerator destroys materials to an efficiency rating of 99.999999 percent.
And everything burned at 3M Cottage Grove isn’t hazardous in the toxic sludge sense, Garner said — lutefisk, made using lye, would be considered hazardous, he said.
The incinerator is “just about as efficient as it can get,” said pollution control engineer Greg Kvaal. “But, as with everything, something can get through.”
But the issue isn’t just that the amendments would only slightly increase emissions, Bailey said. Any increase in emissions due to waste that isn’t 3M’s is unacceptable.
Especially, he said, while emotions are still raw over the discovery of groundwater in the city contaminated with 3M-produced chemicals.
“There really is no benefit to bringing this into Cottage Grove,” he said, echoing a line city officials have used since last spring.
Since debate over the issue first flared almost a year ago, the city has expressed its concerns with outside waste being brought to the city and burned by 3M.
Already, roughly five trucks per day from 3M operations around the continent transport waste to the facility, said 3M Cottage Grove site director Vickie Batroot during a tour of the incinerator earlier this month. The plan to import waste from a Wisconsin provider would increase that to seven trucks per day.
3M officials say their extensive waste tracking system — which includes a specific code given to each container of waste as it moves through the facility, and seven samples taken of each waste stream for testing — will ensure the outside waste is handled safely.
Kvaal, though, conceded that “you can make an argument that 3M has control of the material from start to finish, and maybe that would give them a little advantage on how to treat it.”
Even so, Kvaal says that, “in reality, a lot of what is coming out of the stack blows right over Cottage Grove. It’s probably somewhere in western Wisconsin when it comes down,” said Kvaal of the pollution control agency. “That’s the whole point of the stack, to get emissions up in the air and get some dispersion.”
That way, he said, the chemicals emitted are less concentrated when coming back toward the ground.
But tell that, Bailey says, to someone living within sight of the stack.
“It’s not like a lawnmower or a backyard fire going,” he said. “It’s different.”