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City evolves on environment

In 2005, when 3M's Minnesota Pollution Control Agency permits that govern the company's Cottage Grove hazardous waste incinerator last came up for re-permitting, there were no cries of outrage from the city's leaders, no task force meetings or scramble to redraw city ordinances.

Mayor Myron Bailey -- then a first-year city council member -- says he doesn't even recall knowing the re-permitting process was underway.

That year, there was, in fact, no comment from the City of Cottage Grove at all.

The contrast to the way the debate around proposed changes at the 3M incinerator has played out since April is striking: in interviews, Cottage Grove city staff and city council members painted a picture of a city hall less engaged in environmental issues and more trusting of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to act in the city's interests before the discovery of 3M manufactured perfluorochemicals in the city's groundwater in early 2007.

Now, a three-month-old environmental task force that late last month wrapped up a study of the 3M Cottage Grove incinerator -- finding it to be one of the lowest emitters of pollution on the site -- will next conduct an inventory of all pollution control agency-permitted facilities in the city to catalog any potential environmental concerns.

PFC issue altered course

It has been a shift toward what city officials called a more active role in environmental matters within the city's borders, one that began with the discovery of PFCs in Langdon neighborhood wells and Cottage Grove city water.

"In 2007, the PFC thing came out and we've been more concerned since then," said Cottage Grove City Administrator Ryan Schroeder. "Really, we are now taking the position that we have to be more rigorous in local review, because the (pollution control agency's) responsibilities are so huge in this regard that perhaps local issues get lost in the fray."

Or, as Justin Olsen, a city council member since January, said: "We went from trust, to trust but verify."

Officials say the seven-person Task Force on the Environment is evidence of the change. The group evaluated Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and 3M claims about the company's proposed incinerator permit amendments that would allow 3M to burn chemical waste produced by outside sources.

It delivered a report and recommendations on the proposal in just less than three months of work -- an exceptionally compressed timeline for such a complex issue, Schroeder said. He said last week it's likely the environmental task force would evolve into a permanent city body.

April's announcement from 3M regarding the company's proposed changes at the almost 40-year-old incinerator has led to assurances of even more vigilant monitoring of environmental issues and permits within the city, officials say, even without regulatory power over the proceedings.

Prior to the incinerator proposal, "I wouldn't say (the city was) passive," said Howard Blin, director of community development and, along with city engineer Jennifer Levitt, a staff liaison to the task force. "I do believe this incinerator issue, in particular, made us more aware that there are state permitting processes that do have local impacts."

3M spokesman Bill Nelson said recently the company has no response to the more involved stance the city has taken with permitting issues, despite its lack of regulatory power. 3M, he said, "supports an open and transparent permitting process."

'On the front burner'

To Bailey, a heightened sense of awareness regarding environmental issues in the city might be the one positive thing to emerge from the PFC issue, the mayor said.

"I don't think there would have been much of an issue with (the incinerator proposal) without the PFC issue," Bailey said.

He suggested last week that, once upon a time, the incinerator proposal wouldn't have caused a stir, would not have sent city officials scrambling to halt its advance through the bureaucratic steps of a state agency.

Before, the city "rubber stamped" things like permit renewals, Bailey said, "and put them in a file."

City council member Mark Grossklaus, finishing his seventh year on the council, said he sees the changes as part of a larger societal shift: environmental issues and concerns are more of a focus for individuals -- and government -- than ever before.

In recent years, city council and staff have begun talking more about environmental impacts of activities in the city -- even the impacts of operations at Cottage Grove City Hall or in public works operations.

Issues like PFCs or the incinerator may have played a part, but "a lot of it comes from just expectations and understanding of what's happening with the environment," Grossklaus said.

Schroeder said the city began shifting to a more active role in pollution control agency issues under the old city council, whose makeup was altered in last November's elections.

Bailey, though, has helped push environmental issues to the forefront, campaigning on them, in part, last year, and stating repeatedly his misgivings with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

In Cottage Grove today, environmental issues, Bailey said, are "more on the front burner instead of the far-back burner. It won't ever get pushed to the back burner again."