By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
On the afternoon of February 17, Kathy Attwood and about 20 fellow activists got together at the Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center in the southeast Minnesota town of Lanesboro. Their purpose: to review a freshly minted court decision related to their long-running fight against a plan to build a $50-million tire-burning plant in the neighboring community of Preston. As the assembled group pored over the nine-page ruling, Attwood recounts, "our initial reaction was confusion."
That response was understandable. As the president of Southeastern Minnesotans for Environmental Protection (SEMEP), Attwood had hoped her group's lawsuit against the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency would result in a judicial order requiring the MPCA to perform a full-scale review of the controversial project. Such a review, Attwood says, would go a long way toward addressing environmental and health concerns raised by Heartland Energy and Recycling Company's plan to incinerate 10 million scrap tires a year on the outskirts of Preston.
In the ruling, Olmsted County District Court Judge Joseph F. Wieners did not grant SEMEP's request. However, the judge ordered the MPCA to take another, closer look at its decision to green-light the project. "Basically, he told the MPCA to do their job," Attwood says. "He's holding them accountable for their work."
The ruling provided a measure of validation--and a rare bit of good news--for Heartland's critics. Over the last two years, the proposed plant has been the source of bitter divisions in Preston and neighboring communities. Project backers, including many in Preston's business and political establishment, have accused critics of fear mongering. Opponents, meanwhile, claim that backers have employed bullying tactics, all the while ignoring legitimate concerns about a plant that could spew as much as 588 tons of pollutants into the air each year.
In his ruling, Judge Wieners concluded that the MPCA made basic errors in analyzing the Heartland proposal. "The pilot test upon which virtually all of [the MPCA's] calculations were based was one-ninth the size the PCA thought it was," Wieners wrote. "Exacerbating this mistake in the court's view is the fact that the pilot plant results have never been peer reviewed, are more than 15 years old, and were disclaimed by the company conducting the tests."
Wieners also bluntly criticized the agency's handling of questions about the cumulative effects of emissions from Heartland and the existing Pro-Corn Ethanol plant. Asserting that the people of the Preston area have "already been victimized" by Pro-Corn, Wieners characterized the MPCA's response to those concerns as "disingenuous."
As of late last week, the MPCA had yet to respond to the judge's ruling. Kathleen Winters, a lawyer with the state Attorney General's Office who defended the MPCA in court, referred questions to MPCA spokeswoman Nancy Miller. Miller says only that it would be "premature" to comment on the judge's criticisms of the agency.
The sharpest rebuke in Wieners's ruling, however, was reserved for state Rep. Greg Davids (R-Preston). Davids, the son-in-law of Heartland founder Robert Maust, has long been a lightning rod for Heartland critics, who charge that the seven-term lawmaker has acted as a secret advocate for the project. In the ruling, Wieners does not name Davids, but charges that "a state representative" engaged in "a ham-handed effort to speed up the permitting process, despite the fact that the Heartland project was behind seven other air projects to be analyzed by the [M]PCA."
Davids bristles at that characterization of events, insisting that he has remained neutral on the project. "[Judge Wieners] has certainly confused me," he says. "Ham-handed? What does that mean, anyway?"
For Preston Mayor Dave Pechulis, elected a year ago on an anti-Heartland platform, such protestations ring hollow. "Davids was working behind the scenes all along, and then said nothing was going on," asserts Pechulis. Along with a group of fellow Preston residents, Pechulis is calling on the state House of Representatives to investigate Davids's conduct, including statements Davids made in a furtively recorded phone conversation in which he threatened to sue activists working against the project and labeled his fellow legislators "chickenshits."
Whether the House will investigate remains an open question. If it does, however, one long-standing member of the ethics committee will be required to recuse himself. That would be Greg Davids.