Down on the Riverside

Activists want Xcel to clean up its oldest--and dirtiest--power plant

Standing atop the roof of Xcel Energy's Riverside Generating Plant in northeast Minneapolis, plant manager Ken Beadell points toward the top of a towering smokestack. "See that?" he says with a smile. "It's a nest box for peregrine falcons."

For the past decade, Beadell explains, the utility has been placing the nest boxes on its stacks in an effort to rebuild populations of the cliff-dwelling birds, which were nearly wiped out by widespread use of the pesticide DDT. The program has been a success, in terms of both conservation and public relations. Since its inception, some 137 peregrine chicks have hatched in the boxes at Riverside and six other Xcel plants across the state. During the nesting season, bird lovers can even watch the progress of the young falcons on the Internet, thanks to Xcel-installed cameras (see www.xcelenergy.com/community/birdPlantNest.asp).

But while peregrine falcons have adapted well to life in proximity to Riverside, some of its human neighbors have become increasingly displeased with the plant. In recent months the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has received more than 170 letters opposing the utility's pending application to renew the operating permit for the 90-year-old plant, one of four major metro-area facilities that burn coal to produce electricity--and supplier of power to some 400,000 households. In November more than 100 people packed the basement of a northeast Minneapolis church to pillory utility representatives and MPCA officials over emissions issues. Even a few elected officials made hay at the expense of Xcel and the MPCA: Newly elected Sixth Ward Minneapolis City Council member Dean Zimmermann complained it would be "criminal" to renew the permit, while state Rep. Jean Wagenius of south Minneapolis said she was "extremely troubled" by the MPCA's approach.

Five years ago, the last time Xcel applied to the MPCA for a permit, fewer than a dozen people attended the hearing, and fewer still submitted written comments, says neighborhood activist Fran Guminga. That changed, Guminga says, because now there's more information available about the health and environmental hazards associated with burning coal.

"Like a lot of people, I used to think, 'The government is protecting us. We don't have dangerous pollution here because we have an EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and an MPCA,'" Guminga explains. "The more I learned about it, the more I realized that simply wasn't true--that many of the laws that are supposed to protect us simply don't."

Like most power plants built before the 1970s, Riverside is a direct beneficiary of the so-called dirty-coal loophole in the Clean Air Act, says Paula Maccabee, director of the Sierra Club's Minnesota Air Toxics Campaign. When Congress passed the act in 1970, it exempted older plants from the more stringent provisions of the law, on the grounds it would be expensive to retrofit plants that presumably would soon be retired. Thirty years later many of those plants are still up and running, producing electricity much more cheaply than their modern counterparts.

And polluting more. While Riverside has been modified extensively over the years, it still boasts the state's highest rate of emissions for a type of particulate matter known as PM10. "PM10 is much worse for you than was previously thought, and here we've got this plant in the most densely populated area of the state," notes Carl Nelson, a manager with the environmental organization the Minnesota Project. In his master's thesis at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute, Nelson attempted to quantify the health impact of Minnesota's nine major coal-fired power plants for PM10-related respiratory ailments. In each category--from asthma-attack days to emergency-room visits to "restricted activity days"--Riverside led the pack. In an October 5 letter to the MPCA, four Minneapolis City Council members cited Nelson's report in a call to reduce emissions at the plant.

"I think the conclusions from the report are suspect," counters Xcel's air-quality manager Lee Eberley, who argues that Nelson's analysis was based on cherry-picked studies. "When you look at an issue like particulate matter and its effects on human health, you need to review all the clinical data that are out there, and not just pick one subset." Eberley further points out that the utility meets all its current emissions standards. "If people don't believe the standards are adequate, there is a process to deal with that," he adds. "And if the science says there needs to be reductions, we'll do that. But I don't think decisions should be based on innuendo or unsupported facts. And it's not incumbent on us, or good policy for the state, to make changes that are going to cost a lot of people a lot of money, if those changes aren't based on sound science."

Dave Thornton, a policy manager with the MPCA, says his agency would need more concrete evidence that Riverside is causing specific health or environmental harms to justify denying the permit. "We know that grandfathered power plants contribute to regional air pollution, but we don't have specific evidence linking a specific plant to a specific problem. It's the total emissions from all the plants that are the problem," Thornton contends. "We need to look at the whole sector, and not try and deal with this on a permit-by-permit basis." Even if the MPCA refused to issue Riverside a permit, he adds, the plant could continue to operate under its old permit as long as it doesn't exceed federal emission standards.

According to an MPCA fact sheet, the issuance of a new permit could net two immediate benefits: a requirement that Xcel study the dispersion patterns of PM10 and a correction of an error in the existing permit regarding coal-handling operations.

That's not enough for the Sierra Club's Paula Maccabee. The law that created the MPCA gives the agency broad authority to protect public health, Maccabee asserts, noting that other states--particularly in the northeast, where emissions from Midwestern coal plants are often carried by prevailing winds--have successfully required their grandfathered coal plants to meet current Clean Air Act emission standards. It is, she says, simply a question of political will. "It's the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, not the Minnesota Pollution Permitting Agency," she quips.

Xcel officials say they're looking at alternatives to reduce emissions in all of the company's metro-area power plants. As part of a signed agreement with the environmental group the Isaac Walton League, Xcel will produce a list of proposed improvements by May 1. Ron Elsner, who manages Xcel's voluntary emissions-reduction program, says those improvements could range from installing state-of-the-art pollution-control equipment to converting plants to natural gas (the preferred alternative of most activists).

For neighborhood organizers such as Fran Guminga, Xcel's promise to look at cleaning up emissions is encouraging. But Guminga worries about continuing delays--and the possibility that the utility will find a reason to exclude Riverside. (At one meeting with Xcel officials, Guminga recalls, she was told that converting Riverside's boilers to natural gas was unlikely, owing to the absence of an easily accessible supply line.) "The Clean Air Act is 30 years old," she says. "It's just time to say enough is enough. I like the people that run the plant. They're nice people. But they shouldn't keep burning coal."

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