Burn Baby Burn

People in tiny Preston, Minnesota, have a lot of questions about a plan to burn 10 million tires a year in their town. Too bad the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency doesn't.

It's a little after 4:00 p.m. on December 30, and about 50 people have turned up at Preston City Hall to check out the fireworks. This is not unusual. For over a year, lots of residents from Preston and nearby communities have regularly jammed the City Council chambers for the weekly meeting. It is the best entertainment going in this normally quiet and bucolic farm town of 1,400, nestled in the rolling hill country about 30 miles south of Rochester. Today's audience looks to be a fairly representative cross section of the populace: plenty of lifelong Preston residents (think seed-company foam caps, cell phones clipped to the belt), a full complement of Chamber of Commerce types (same as above, minus the seed caps), and a good number of Twin Cities transplants (fleece, sensible footwear). A trio of teenage boys have even turned up for today's meeting, apparently bored with their options for the day. They have the age-old expression of adolescents relishing the prospect of watching their elders lose their cool.

As the meeting comes to order, everyone rises from their folding metal chairs and turns to the American flag at the front of the fake-wood paneled chamber. After the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance (in smooth, well-practiced unison), the meeting is called to order. And the veneer of Rockwellian gentility promptly dissipates.

The Preston City Council, like Preston itself, is bitterly divided these days. Council members are soon lobbing verbal salvos at one another or, when they've yielded the floor to their adversaries, sniping in stage whispers. To an outsider, the tone of these exchanges is reminiscent of what you might hear from a couple stuck in a long and loveless marriage: The door-slamming is over, but a knowing contempt drips from every gesture.

Mayor Dave Pechulis--a 37-year-old former Minneapolis resident who was elected a year ago in a last-minute, write-in campaign--called this meeting to investigate what he regards as the latest attack on the democratic process in Preston. A week or so earlier, Pechulis explains, he received a letter from a local contractor. In the letter, the contractor claimed that Richard Eichstadt--the manager of the Pro-Corn LLC ethanol plant and therefore one of Preston's more prominent businessmen--had abruptly terminated the contractor's longstanding business relationship with the ethanol co-op. The alleged reason: The contractor put up some lawn signs for a candidate in an upcoming City Council election, a candidate opposed by Eichstadt and much of the rest of the town's business establishment.

As is often the case in Preston these days, the precise facts remain in dispute. In a written response submitted to the council, Eichstadt declined to provide details--this was a private matter between business people, he said--and then flatly denied the crux of the allegation. He even denied that he had fired the contractor.

But Mayor Pechulis and his allies left little doubt as to their suspicions. In their view, the episode looked to be the latest example of a Preston power player trying to bully an opponent of the project that has split Preston in two: the proposed Heartland Energy & Recycling power plant.

For the past four years, Heartland--a company founded by a lifelong Preston resident and longtime scrap tire dealer named Robert Maust--has been pushing a plan to build a $50 million power plant in the industrial park where Pro-Corn is located. Heartland's critics fear that the plant, which would incinerate some 10 million scrap tires annually to produce electricity (and steam for sale to Pro-Corn), poses a threat to both human health and the environment. Under its permits, critics point out, Heartland's 210-foot high smokestack could spew out as much as 588 tons of potentially harmful pollutants per year--all within a half-mile of a grade school and a nursing home.

Maust, along with much of the political and business establishment in Preston and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, has insisted all along that the technology employed at the plant will prevent any significant hazard. The emission numbers, Maust maintains, will be well below the maximum permitted levels.

But, truth be told, no one on either side of the issue knows with certainty what will happen. Why? Because there has never been a tire-burning plant of the exact size and type proposed by Heartland.

On all issues connected to Heartland, the Preston City Council has been split three to two for more than a year. The December 30 City Council meeting is no exception. Pechulis and two like-minded council members finally cram through a resolution requesting that the contractor's claims of intimidation by Eichstadt be investigated by Attorney General Mike Hatch. Two other council members, both Heartland backers, vote against the proposal.

"We have some serious problems down here and the attorney general or some entity outside of Fillmore County needs to investigate," Pechulis explains later. "There is a small group of very determined Heartland supporters who will pretty much stop at nothing to make sure this deal goes through." He says he regularly hears from constituents who are opposed to the project but fear reprisals in their workplaces if they air their feelings publicly.

This is not the first time Pechulis has pushed for an outside entity to intervene in a Heartland-related matter. Last year, the mayor even contacted the FBI in Rochester, seeking an investigation into what he claims were attempts by Heartland CEO Maust to bribe him. Shortly after he was elected mayor, Pechulis alleges, Maust offered him his pick of jobs at the plant, with the unspoken proviso that the mayor would then stop fighting the project. Maust denies the allegation. When Pechulis reiterated it at a City Council meeting some months ago, Maust, who was in attendance, offered a tart retort. "I said, 'Mayor Pechulis, I don't think you would make a good member for our team,'" Maust recalls with a chuckle.

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