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Burn Baby Burn

Jeff Soto

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.

But if Robert Maust and other Heartland backers can occasionally find reason to laugh in the long-running dispute over the project, the opposition could not be more serious. It's not just the health and well-being of the community that's at stake, they say; it's the democratic process.

 

When Kathleen Attwood first caught wind of the Heartland proposal, she had no idea that it involved burning tires. At the time, in January 2002, Attwood only knew that there was a pending application before the city for a conditional use permit to operate an electrical generating facility. But Attwood, a self-employed data entry worker who had moved to Preston from south Minneapolis some 16 years earlier, was curious. While she had scant experience with political or regulatory processes, she had begun paying closer attention to such matters in the late 1990s, shortly after the Pro-Corn ethanol plant was constructed on the outskirts of town. Despite repeated official assurances that the ethanol plant would produce a faint odor at worst, Attwood was soon among many Preston residents angered by the emissions that pumped from the Pro-Corn smokestack 24 hours a day.

Those complaints were later validated. In 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sued Pro-Corn for violations of the Clean Air Act, chiefly related to excessive release of volatile organic compounds (or VOCs, which are known to cause cancer) and carbon monoxide. As part of a negotiated settlement of the EPA lawsuit, Pro-Corn finally agreed to install some two million dollars' worth of additional pollution control equipment and to pay a civil penalty of $29,000.

For Attwood, the experience with Pro-Corn was instructive. Anxious to support the local farm economy, she recalls, officials from the city and the state--including the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA)--had done what they could to grease the skids for the Pro-Corn facility. Now, on bad days, the whole town stunk of ethanol. Nearby homes and cars, she says, were sometimes coated with a peculiar residue from the stack.

In the beginning, she was one of few people with much interest. "At the first hearing, I was one of only three residents that showed up," she recalls. "Back then, we had never heard anything about them using scrap tires as fuel. The original notice didn't say anything about tires. It just said it was for an electrical generation facility."

When Attwood pressed Heartland president Maust about noise, odors, and emissions from the plant, she was told there was nothing to worry about. As the Heartland proposal began speedily wending its way through the local bureaucracy, Attwood grew increasingly alarmed. At the time, most of Preston's Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council were enthusiastic backers of the project. Some were old friends of Maust's. One longtime councilman (and enthusiastic Heartland supporter), Jerry Scheevel, had once worked under Maust. Given such sympathies and connections, it was not surprising that the city awarded Heartland a conditional use permit--even though the MPCA had yet to complete its environmental review of the project.

In November of 2002, after meeting with like-minded area residents, Attwood formed Southeastern Minnesotans for Environmental Protection, or SEMEP, the group that has spearheaded both the political and legal fight against the Heartland plant. "We recognized that a project like this could happen easily in any small town, especially towns that don't have carefully worded land use and zoning regulations," Attwood observes. "And we figured if we had more people attending City Council meetings in the first place, we would have known about this at the beginning. By the time we found out about it, this was already in the planning for two years."

That disadvantage notwithstanding, Attwood proved an effective organizer. In less than a year, SEMEP rounded up several hundred members and collected enough money to hire an attorney to take its fight to court. The group has already filed two lawsuits against the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in connection with the agency's handling of the Heartland project. One of those lawsuits, which asked a judge to overturn the MPCA's decision to grant an air permit to the project, was dismissed; it is now under appeal. The other, which asks that Heartland be required to perform an environmental impact statement in lieu of the less rigorous environmental assessment worksheet, has yet to be ruled on.  

The difference between an EIS and EAW is critical, because an EIS answers questions in much more detail, says Jim Peters, the attorney for SEMEP. The biggest question, of course, centers on the precise nature of the emissions from Heartland. Peters points out that the estimates for the Heartland project are based chiefly on a pilot burn for a proposed plant in California that was never built. That pilot test, conducted in 1986, employed a fluidized bed incinerator, which is the same technology proposed by Heartland. But there is a significant difference: The pilot incinerator was just nine square feet, approximately 1/64th the size of the one proposed by Heartland. "A fluidized bed has never been used anywhere in the world to burn 100 percent tire-derived fuel," Peters adds. "So this technology is untested, and they're projecting all the emissions on a small pilot test. The bottom line is, if this project goes forward, the people in Preston are going to be the experiment."

In the running battle against Heartland, Attwood and her allies at SEMEP have brought in their own technical experts from both the medical and engineering worlds. In urging a more comprehensive examination of the health impacts of emissions before the issuance of a permit, Dr. Barbara Yawn, a researcher at the Olmstead Medical Center in Rochester, notes that asthma rates among southeastern Minnesota school children are already higher than those found in the inner cities of Baltimore and Chicago. "Some people have suggested that a new business in Preston is a win-win situation. The new company will get the land it needs for businesses and the government will get the new taxes," Yawn wrote in an open letter to the Preston City Council. "I wonder if people with asthma in Rochester would win with this permit."

In a February 23, 2003 letter to MPCA commissioner Sheryl Corrigan, Charles Michael--an engineer who has worked as a project manager for three major municipal incineration projects--also urged Corrigan to order an EIS for Heartland. Michael, who was hired by SEMEP, observed that Heartland's environmental assessment did not include any data on a host of potentially carcinogenic emissions, including formaldehyde and chloroform. Michael further questioned whether Heartland's proposed operating temperature (1,500 degrees, as opposed to an industry standard of 1,800 degrees) would be hot enough to "adequately destroy chlorinated organic compounds." As a result, he reasoned, there could well be higher emissions than the existing projections.

Michael's letter, along with a flood of other critical correspondences from Preston area residents, appeared to have little effect on the MPCA's thinking. After declining to order an EIS, this summer the MPCA board granted an air permit for the project--effectively giving the project its blessing.

Those decisions, says SEMEP attorney Peters, represent a disturbing decline in the state's commitment to stringent environmental regulation. "As I told the judge, if you're not going to order an EIS on a plant that is going to burn 375 tons of tires per day, less than half a mile from a school, using an experimental technology, when are you going to order it and for what?" Peters says. "This says to me that people in Minnesota ought to have grave concerns about the direction of environmental review in Minnesota."

 

For Robert Maust, the Heartland founder, SEMEP's emergence as a political force in Preston has been a significant annoyance. By now, he expected construction to be well under way. Instead, he now finds himself parrying with (and suing) the Preston City Council. In his view, those who oppose the project are practically flat-earthers--people who simply refuse to accept the advancements in technology that make tire burning not only a clean, efficient source of electricity but a good solution for disposing of a problem waste. "For the first two years, everything was all calm and collected. The City Council was very friendly. They worked with us. They listened to reason," Maust says. "But these environmentalists, they've seen Grandpa burn a tire in a woodpile, and, man, it produced a lot of smoke. And they're convinced that's what the plant will do."  

On the contrary, Maust asserts: When tires are burned properly, they burn more cleanly than wood. In fact, Maust says, he originally planned to use wood for about 20 percent of the fuel for Heartland. He only dropped the idea when projections showed that burning wood would lead to a spike in the emissions of nitrogen oxides, one of five so-called "criteria pollutants" that could have automatically triggered more stringent regulatory scrutiny if released in significant quantities.

As it happens, Heartland's potential nitrogen oxide emissions--245 tons per year--are just five tons below what the MPCA deems "major source levels." The potential emissions of other pollutants also fell short of the major source levels, though the numbers hardly seem insignificant. According to Heartland's own consulting engineers, the plant has the potential to emit annually 115 tons of sulfur dioxide, 122 tons of carbon monoxide, 25.6 tons of volatile organic compounds, 70 tons of particulate matter, and a quarter-ton of lead.

Maust insists that the actual emissions from the plant will be "a lot lower" than the potential numbers that Heartland's engineers projected. He declines to provide more precise figures, but points out that under its operating permit Heartland will be required to continuously monitor its emissions. "We aren't going to run a $50 million plant close to being in violation of its permits," he asserts. People in Preston shouldn't fear health or environmental harm from the plant, he says; after all, in rejecting a call for an environmental impact statement and then subsequently issuing an air permit, the MPCA concluded that there "are no potential significant environmental effects expected to occur from the project."

In the view of the MPCA's critics, that is cold comfort. The agency, they say, habitually forgoes ordering EISs, and rarely rejects an application for an air permit. MPCA officials respond that they have to use objective criteria when it comes to ordering environmental impact statements. And while it is true that the MPCA seldom rejects air permit applications, that's because the agency works with applicants to make sure they have complied with all the rules before submitting their paperwork, says Rebecca Helgeson, a spokeswoman at the MPCA. "It's a waste of their money to send in an application that we're going to reject. From their point of view, they want to get it done correctly," Helgeson explains.

Chuck Dayton, an attorney with the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, says that the MPCA and other state agencies have discretionary authority to order environmental impact statements. They just don't use it much--and that, he says, is a product of some of the cultural changes at the MPCA over the years. "Now there is much more concern about whether the decisions are amenable to industry. There is much more talk about being partners with industry," Dayton observes. He suggests there was one overriding reason for that: More and more senior MPCA officials, including both the current and most recent heads of the agency, come to the agency from jobs in regulated industries. "If you get someone from industry, you get the benefit of their expertise. But you also get a built-in concern about not offending the industry," Dayton says. "It's tough to be a regulator if you worry about whether they like you or not."

Whatever changes have occurred internally at the MPCA pale in comparison to the fundamental shift in environmental consciousness of the legislature and administration. In the 2003 legislative session, for instance, a proposal to declare scrap tires a "renewable resource" (which could then be counted toward the state's goal of having 10 percent of its electric output from renewables by 2010) was only derailed as a result of a last-minute filibuster. Other significant changes were successfully crammed through. For instance, lawmakers rewrote the rules governing environmental review of large animal feedlots--an important issue in agricultural areas such as southeast Minnesota that have sensitive geological features. Prior to the change, feedlot neighbors could petition for an environmental review of any proposed feedlot with more than 1,000 hogs or 214 dairy cows. The new law tripled those numbers. "Basically, the legislature gave more property rights to the owners of feedlots, and took them away from the neighbors," observes Minneapolis State Rep. Jean Wagenius. And that, Wagenius adds, creates a useful analogy to the MPCA's handling of the Heartland proposal.

SEMEP attorney Peters puts it more bluntly. He notes that a controversial plan to burn tires in a cement kiln in Montana induced the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to order an environmental impact statement, as did other tire-burning proposals in Illinois and Ohio. "If we're behind Montana, Illinois, and Ohio in terms of what we require, aren't we putting Minnesota at risk?" Peters asks. "Minnesota has great natural resources. Our quality of life depends on a good environment. And I think that is under assault right now."  

 

In Preston, the dispute over Heartland has become as much a personal matter as a political one. That has been especially true in the case of State Representative Greg Davids. A former Preston mayor now in his seventh term in the legislature, Davids insists he has remained neutral on the Heartland issue. He has good reason: Robert Maust, Heartland president, is his father-in-law. What's more, his wife, Bonnie, works at Green Man Industries, a Savage-based tire recycling company which will likely do business with Heartland. "It has been an extremely controversial issue, and for Greg Davids not to get involved in a controversial issue is not right," Davids says of his role. But because of the conflicts, he says, he has avoided casting votes on anything affecting Heartland; at the same time, he has "opened up [his] office to both proponents and opponents."

In Preston, suspicions and speculation about Davids's actions and motives haven't gone away. In 2001, the legislature enacted a law awarding generous sales- and property-tax exemptions to any electric power generation plant that used waste tires as a primary fuel source. While the bill was clearly targeted at the Heartland proposal (there are no other tire-burning plants in Minnesota, and no proposals for any), Davids did not sponsor or vote on the bill. He says he had nothing to do with it. In fact, the bill was authored by another Republican from a neighboring district, State Representative Bob Gunther. Gunther says he introduced the bill at the urging "of a friend of Greg Davids" whose name he no longer recalls. But all Davids did, according to Gunther, was to urge him to speak to the unnamed friend.

Last spring, as the controversy over Heartland began to build, an anti-Heartland activist wrote a letter to the local paper, the Republican-Leader, accusing Davids of "slimeball politics" and conflict of interest. Meanwhile, other SEMEP members began questioning whether Davids had exerted his influence as a legislator to help speed the project through the MPCA permitting process. In one internal MPCA e-mail from May 13, 2002, Paul Eger, the MPCA's legislative liaison, wrote that he was "trying to gather some information for Rep. Greg Davids concerning the status of an air quality permit for Heartland Energy." Eger now says that Davids was merely making an inquiry, not pressing the agency to take any particular course of action. For his part, Davids says, "I think I made one call to check on a timeline for the proponents. Just for information purposes."

After the infamous "slimeball" letter appeared in the Republican-Leader, Davids telephoned Dave Pechulis, the mayor of Preston. Pechulis, who was elected to office in November 2002 as an anti-Heartland write-in candidate, furtively taped the conversation. Pechulis says he did this because he had become increasingly disturbed by what he perceived as the bullying and unethical tactics of the pro-Heartland camp.

If nothing else, the conversation provides a colorful window into the world of small-town politics. Davids expresses extreme displeasure with the letter to the Republican-Leader, and then threatens to sue the letter writer absent an apology. "That's not acceptable. That's lawsuit city. If he makes [an apology], I'll accept it... But if this continues, I'll protect myself," Davids says. What bothered Pechulis most was what came next: Davids declared he would also take other members of SEMEP to court. "Does this SEMEP group have insurance?" Davids says on the tape. "You better get some. This happens again, I'll sue them. I've got good attorneys. Junkyard-dog-killing attorneys that will rip their eyes out and pee in their brains."

Davids did not return a call requesting comment on this conversation. But in an earlier interview, he insisted that he didn't "want to interfere with either side," a claim his critics say they find laughable.

 

On January 15, there was a special election for a vacant seat on the Preston City Council. Everything was on the line. Aside from SEMEP's lawsuit against the MPCA, the obstructionism of the City Council was the only thing standing in the way of Heartland. For over a year, the council has been narrowly divided and the balance of power has seesawed back and fourth. Last summer, after a pro-Heartland council member died unexpectedly, Mayor Pechulis appointed a temporary replacement, a medical doctor and Heartland critic named Robert Sauer. Sauer repeatedly provided crucial votes as the anti-Heartland faction sought to beat back the project. Over the bitter objection of pro-Heartland council members, the city placed a moratorium on industrial development in town, revoked Heartland's conditional use permit, and signed on to SEMEP's lawsuit against the MPCA.

Two weeks before the special election to create a permanent replacement for Sauer's seat, there was a further complication: Another council member--and a reliable Heartland opponent--abruptly resigned. That left the council split down the middle, two against two. When Pechulis attempted to appoint a replacement for the open seat, the two pro-Heartland council members walked out of the chambers. When the mayor called subsequent meetings, they refused to show.  

Absent a quorum, the mayor was powerless to act. A frustrated Pechulis declared the rebellion "a willful neglect of duty and an act of nonfeasance." The strategy behind the walkout, Pechulis asserts, was plain to see: If a pro-Heartland candidate were to win in the special election, Heartland backers would have control over the appointment for the other vacancy. With that, the pro-Heartland faction stood to gain a super majority on the council. From a strategic point of view, the mayor says, a super majority would make a huge difference: "They could undo everything that has been done to this point."

That, it now seems, is precisely what is likely to happen. In a hotly contested special election that attracted 85 percent of eligible voters, a former council member named Steve Knoepke bested Sauer by 99 votes. While Knoepke never declared himself in favor of the tire-burning plant, he has said he worried that the council's obstructionism and participation in lawsuits would only cost the city money in the end. Heartland's supporters leave no doubt that they are delighted by Knoepke's election. Jerry Scheevel, an avowedly pro-Heartland council member, says that he suspects the new council will backtrack as quickly as possible from the decisions of the previous council.

That can't happen soon enough for his liking. A Preston native, Scheevel made little secret of his contempt for the anti-Heartland forces, especially Mayor Pechulis, with whom he refuses even to speak. The town has never been so divided as it is now, he adds. "There has never been anything close to this. Hopefully, this election will put an end to it," Scheevel declares. "I think the fight is over."


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