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Opposition to plan for 3M Cottage Grove incinerator gets heated

An opponent to 3M's plan to burn waste from outside the company at its Cottage Grove incinerator expressed her displeasure with this sign at a meeting this week.

A highly-charged public meeting on 3M Co.'s plans to expand the sources of waste it burns at the company's Cottage Grove incinerator turned heated this week, with frustrated residents venting their anger at state pollution control officials for allowing the changes to move forward.

MPCA officials told more than 100 residents who packed bleachers at Cottage Grove Middle School there is nothing in 3M's proposal to begin burning flammable wastes from sources outside the company that would prevent the agency from approving new permits for the facility.

Jeff Smith, manager of the agency's industrial division, said the proposal is "technically adequate" and meets state and federal limits.

"We cannot say 'no,'" Smith said to jeers during the more than two hour meeting on Tuesday evening. "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."

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. They asked questions that ranged from, "Why isn't 3M answering these questions?" to wondering why the company was being allowed to import more waste when it is already dealing with drinking water contamination issues in the east metro.

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.

"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.

Group wants deeper review

The MPCA Citizens' Board is scheduled to render a decision on the amended permits following a May 22 hearing in St. Paul.

A community group opposed to the incinerator plan, however, has petitioned the agency for a detailed environmental review of 3M's proposal to import outside waste into Cottage Grove.

Hoping to force further environmental evaluation, the Coalition of Concerned Cottage Grove Citizens -- a group of residents who have fought the plan since it was first announced in 2009 -- said this week it had filed a petition containing more than 450 signatures to the agency requesting it complete an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW). That worksheet is designed to disclose any potentially negative environmental impacts from a proposed facility.

Smith, of the MPCA, said this week the agency would have a formal response to the petition by Monday.

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.