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Viewpoint: Commission's opinion on incinerator ignored

I am deeply concerned over the action taken by the Cottage Grove City Council on the 3M Incinerator proposal. Not only did the City Council ignore the recommendation of the Cottage Grove Planning Commission, it has hamstrung our city's largest employer without providing any environmental benefit to the city. Furthermore, I am astounded that the Bulletin did not include the findings of the Planning Commission in its coverage of the City Council's latest action.

The Planning Commission was presented with information by the city staff regarding the 3M proposal. The Planning Commission found that preventing 3M from using non-3M solvents to fuel its incinerator was not in the best interest of Cottage Grove. After careful consideration and deliberation, the Planning Commission found the following to be true: 3M's proposal to use non-3M solvents to power its incinerator is actually the most environmentally sound option.

Currently, 3M uses waste solvents generated from its own plants to power its incinerator. Over the past four years, 3M has reduced the amount of waste solvents it generates by almost 60 percent. Because of this reduction, 3M does not have enough of its own solvents to efficiently fuel its incinerator. Without solvents, 3M is forced to burn natural gas and fuel oil to power its incinerator, which is less efficient and produces more air pollutants than the burning of waste solvents.

According to 3M's proposal, it can efficiently eliminate waste solvents and solid waste without impact to the environment. 3M's proposal would only increase the following emissions: 2 pounds of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) per year, and 225 pounds of particulate material per year. To put this into perspective, seven fireplaces burning a half cord of oak over the winter emit the same amount of particulate matter and 800 times the amount of VOCs the incinerator will discharge by burning non-3M waste instead of natural gas and oil. One gas lawnmower can produce 20 pounds of VOCs in one year, 10 times the increase in VOCs that 3M would burn.

Not only would 3M's proposal not have a measurable environmental impact, if 3M generated enough solvents to power its incinerator, we would not be having this discussion right now. The Environmental Protection Agency establishes acceptable levels of emissions, and 3M is not asking for an increase in emissions. The only reason 3M is seeking an amendment to its permit is because it wants to accept waste solvents from other companies.

The only difference between the information presented to the Planning Commission and the City Council, was a study presented to the City Council, which purported to show the citizens of Cottage Grove overwhelmingly opposed 3M's proposal. The study, which the Bulletin calls "independent" was sponsored and paid for by a group opposed to 3M's proposal. I am sure the "independent" study would have found a different result if paid for by another party interested in the outcome.

I know people are concerned about 3M after learning about the perfluorochemicals in our water. I too am concerned. 3M should and is paying for the clean-up and other remedies of PFC contamination. That being said, I can't help but think the PFC issue has tainted the discussion regarding 3M's incinerator proposal. These are two separate issues. With a little perspective (i.e. an environmental impact equivalent to seven fireplaces and one lawnmower) it is apparent that 3M's proposal is not harmful to the city. What is apparent is that the City Council has made it more expensive for our city's largest employer to operate with no measurable benefit to the environment.

At a time when jobs are desperately needed, the last thing we need to do is make business more expensive for employers when there is no environmental benefit. My opinion on this matter would be drastically different if 3M proposed to do something that actually had an environmental impact.

The merits of the case aside, I am troubled that the City Council did not discuss the findings of the Planning Commission. By statute, the Planning Commission is tasked with providing recommendations to the City Council regarding all land use matters. While the City Council does not have to accept the recommendation of the Planning Commission, it should take the commission's recommendations into account. This was not done on the 3M issue. Furthermore, the Bulletin did not even mention the recommendation of the Planning Commission, let alone ask the City Council why it did not address the Commission's findings of fact.

In the future, I hope the City Council addresses the recommendations of the Planning Commission, whether or not it chooses to adopt the Commission's recommendations.

B. Steven Messick is chairman of the Cottage Grove Planning Commission.