A fierce battle of wills is taking place over construction of a new tire-derived fuel-burning electric plant in Preston-a town of 1,400 near the Iowa border-and whether the project is environmentally safe.
A citizens' group called Southeastern Minnesotans for Environmental Protection has gotten two state courts to halt construction of the Heartland Energy & Recycling facility in Preston.
One of its lawsuits inspired the Olmsted County District Court to order the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA) to reconsider the environmental impact assessment it performed on the Heartland project; the other, before the Minnesota Court of Appeals, seeks to revoke the air permit the agency gave Heartland in January.
The group also has held public protests against the Heartland project-including one May 1 attended by more than 200 people.
It also has collected signatures demanding that the PCA force Heartland to conduct a new environmental impact study for the plant, which is being billed as one of the world's largest TDF plants, according to a recent report by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) that was aired on National Public Radio.
For its part, Heartland and its president, Bob Maust, insist the fluidized bed combustion technology the plant will utilize will allow a clean burn and present no environmental problems.
The Pollution Control Agency ``decided that the project did not present any significant environmental impact and that it uses the best achievable control technology,'' said Andy Brown, Mr. Maust's attorney.
Mr. Maust, a native of Preston, told MPR his family has deep roots in the small town, with his great-grandparents settling there more than 100 years ago. While critics fear the plant will contaminate streams and rivers in the primarily agricultural area, he said his goal is to bring the project-and what he perceives as its benefits-``to my hometown.''
As planned by Heartland, its electric facility will provide 23 megawatts of electricity to Preston and outlying communities, fueled solely by scrap tires-about 10 million annually, according to the company.
The plant will require 32 full-time employees, with an annual payroll of about $2 million.
The MPR report said tires were expected to be trucked in from around the Midwest and Canada. Scrap wire from the tires would be recycled, it said, with the ash residue from the burned tires slated for use in concrete.
Heartland began construction of the plant in mid-January shortly after receiving the air permit from the PCA and continued building until the citizens' lawsuits brought construction to a halt in mid-April, Mr. Brown said.
Fluidized bed combustion has never before been used in a tire-derived fuel (TDF) plant, and that alone is enough to raise environmental concerns, according to Kathleen Attwood, president of Southeastern Minnesotans for Environmental Protection.
``The PCA based its environmental impact assessment of the Heartland project on a test burn conducted in 1986-nowhere near the size of the burn the completed plant would have,'' Ms. Attwood said. ``Fluidized bed combustion for burning tires is an unproven technology. Due to the size and location of the plant, this necessitates a thorough, complete environmental impact statement.''
Ms. Attwood also claimed that no pure TDF-burning electric plant has ever been commercially successful, a charge the scrap tire industry disputes.
``The statement that there has been no economically viable TDF facility is just wrong,'' said Michael Blumenthal, senior technical advisor for the Rubber Manufacturers Association. ``When people don't want something, they make things up to oppose it.''
There have been at least three successful TDF plants, according to Mr. Blumenthal, including the Oxford Energy Corp. facilities at Westley, Calif., and Sterling, Conn., and the Chewton Glen facility near Chicago built by Browning-Ferris Industries Inc.
Ms. Attwood, however, was adamant, noting that two of the plants are now closed.
Mr. Blumenthal countered that the Westley and Chewton Glen facilities closed down for reasons unrelated to their use of TDF and that the latter plant should reopen soon.
The Pollution Control Agency had a deadline of April 21 for further environmental impact information related to the Heartland TDF project but extended it to May 5, according to a PCA spokeswoman.
``We sent out requests for information to both the proponents and the opposition,'' she said. The agency will reopen the public response period for 30 days sometime later this year, but how quickly it does so depends on how much material it receives for review, she added.
Mr. Brown said he expected the PCA to take up the issue again in the latter part of this summer, possibly in July or August.
Meanwhile, Mr. Maust told MPR the controversy has not deterred his dream to transform Preston into the ``Scrap Tire Capital'' of the nation, and he expected construction to resume again in earnest later this year.
Tire Business Managing Editor Sigmund J. Mikolajczyk contributed to this report.