Fly ash committee excused from duty

When executives at Xcel Energy asked representatives from Washington County communities to form an advisory group in April, they were hoping the committee’s members would be able to come together and agree upon a county site most suitable for disposing about 100,000 yearly tons of a solid waste product called fly ash.

On July 13, the more than 20-member group, speaking on behalf of 11 different cities and townships, were indeed able to agree on one point, though it was not the consensus Xcel had originally hoped for. The committee members agreed that, before they continued discussions on the fly ash landfill, they needed to know why the project could not be done outside of Washington County.

According to Darrell Knutson, project manager for the Alan S. King fly ash landfill relocation effort, that request effectively ended the need for the final two Wednesday meetings (July 20 and 27) the committee was scheduled to hold.

"It doesn’t appear that there will be another meeting," Knutson said. "The process we had in place was to ask them to help us look at potential sites that met our minimum criteria. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get to the point in the process for that to happen."

The 50,000 tons of fly ash produced at the Alan S. King power plant in Bayport is currently buried in the Moelter Pit landfill in Oak Park Heights. However, when the company switches to a cleaner burning western coal as part of the Metropolitan Emissions Reduction Project, the amount of coal will necessarily double and so will the fly ash, a byproduct of burned coal. Xcel anticipates the Moelter Pit will be filled sometime around 2010.

The company first tapped West Lakeland Township for the landfill location last fall but, after encountering staunch opposition from residents, decided to form the committee and present them with eight potential sites scattered throughout Washington County. Two of those sites are gravel pits in Lake Elmo.

City Planner Chuck Dillerud was the sole representative for Lake Elmo on the committee and, for several meetings, he stood as the main voice of doubt for whether or not creating a landfill was the only and best option for disposing of fly ash. Although fly ash contains materials like lead, arsenic and mercury and can be toxic if inhaled, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not prohibited its use and, as Dillerud explained to the committee, it is often used to make concrete and other marketable products after it has been treated.

Dillerud’s questions, however, were met with few answers.

"Xcel would not give the committee any details regarding their investigation into any alternatives," Dillerud said following the meeting. "They could have explained some of the costs, but they wouldn’t even go there. ... We started talking about costs at the first meeting and they refused to discuss it."

May speaks up

At the July 5 City Council meeting, Lake Elmo officials voted to try to include at least two council members on the committee with Dillerud and passed a resolution that requested more information regarding alternative disposal methods. As it turned out, however, another community — May Township — had passed a similar more detailed resolution during a July 7 meeting and the committee voted to accept its resolution nearly unanimously.

"(May Township’s) fundamental question was, ‘Why are we putting this in Washington County?’" said Lake Elmo Council Member Anne Smith, who joined the discussion as a voting member on July 13. "These gravel pits sit relatively close to our water supply. ... This is not a ‘not in my backyard’ scenario because we all use the same aquifer."

Xcel’s response was that the fly ash would be transported in what is called a "wet haul" method, meaning the dust-like substance would be kept wet. If the fly ash is kept in this state for too long, it begins to harden like concrete, so an ideal scenario would be for the landfill to be located within 10 miles of the power plant.

Committee members took issue with this approach as well, questioning why the product could not be transported dry in containers. This method would allow the landfill to be located outside of the county, in rural northern Minnesota or possibly outside of the state altogether.

"From the (May) Town Board’s perspective, it made no sense that the only sites had to be gravel pits in this fast-growing area," said Bill Voedisch, May Town Board chairman who spoke "eloquently" at the July 13 meeting, according to Smith.

"Those are probably assumptions based on dollars. (Excel’s) approach seemed to be that this is the set of parameters we’re giving this committee and so the committee must be willing to operate in those parameters."

Energy response

Knutson answered some of the lingering questions following the meeting.

"The reason the committee was asked to not focus on the costs involved is because I (didn’t want to) get bogged down in looking at alternatives and making decisions based on economics," he said. "It wasn’t that we were resistant to talking about economics, I just asked them not to use it as part of the process."

As for the safety concerns regarding county water supplies, which have suffered a number of contaminations this year already, Knutson was definite.

"We feel absolutely sure that we can design, construct, operate and successfully close a landfill safely," he said. "Xcel is confident that we are not going to contaminate or pollute any water in doing this."

Knutson maintained that a wet haul was the "best way to handle" fly ash and asserted that locating outside the county didn’t "seem to have relevance" because of the certainty of safety the company has.

For now, he explained that Xcel would review the work the committee had done and try to address concerns. He added that public input would be sought in the future and the committee members would we welcome to continue their participation in some other capacity.

But even though the ultimate decision will be Xcel’s for where it wants to locate its fly ash landfill, Dillerud asserted gaining community approval would be no easy task — particularly without the support of other communities the company had hoped for. For example, if Xcel chose a Lake Elmo site, it would first need a zoning amendment (requiring four council votes) then a conditional use permit and a comprehensive plan amendment.

Mayor Dean Johnston summarized what he believed to be the likelihood of those actions happening in a city that already houses two problematic landfills.

"We spent $365,000 fighting the Metropolitan Council," he said. "I think citizens would be very opposed to a third landfill in Lake Elmo."

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