Lake Elmo challenges Xcel’s landfill search

The decision on where to dispose of about 100,000 tons (per year) of a solid waste called fly ash was postponed for three weeks on June 22 by a committee of Washington County municipality representatives and environmental experts.

The committee was originally assembled about two months ago by Xcel Energy, the company responsible for creating the potentially dangerous material at its Alan S. King coal-burning power plant in Bayport. Xcel is anticipating a doubling of the 50,000 tons of fly ash it currently produces over the next five years, by which time its disposal site in Oak Park Heights will likely be full.

Lake Elmo is on the short list of cities that could house a new fly ash landfill and City Planner Chuck Dillerud has served as the city's voice for why it should not. But, unlike some other members on the committee, Dillerud has been trying to make a case for why Xcel should reconsider creating a new landfill altogether.

"I'm convinced that there are alternative technologies available for dealing with this fly ash that does not involve dumping it in the ground, capping it off and forgetting it forever," Dillerud told the Lake Elmo City Council during its June 21 meeting. "This isn't like garbage. It never degenerates."

According to Cement and Concrete Terminology, fly ash, a by-product of coal-fired electric generating plants, is "the finely divided residue resulting from the combustion of ground or powered coal." The danger of the material lies in that its particles can become airborne and they have been known to cause lung infections and skin diseases though air and water.

Although the question of where to dispose of fly ash has proved a significant dilemma for Xcel and its local communities, the problem has ironically been necessitated by a metro-wide environmental improvement campaign called the Metropolitan Emissions Reduction Project (MERP).

This comprehensive effort, with total costs projected at hundreds of millions of dollars, is prompting the Alan S. King plant to convert from its hybrid coal product to western coal only; a move that will improve the county's air quality, but will require twice as much coal to do it.

Xcel originally approached West Lakeland Township regarding the location of a new disposal site and, after being met with staunch opposition, decided to form a nearly 20-member committee to discuss potential locations. Besides Lake Elmo, the other entities represented included Baytown Township, Bayport, Grant Township, May Township, Oak Park Heights, Afton, Lake St. Croix Beach, Lakeland Shores, Stillwater and Hudson, Wis., as well as several nonvoting representatives from various environmental groups like the Isaac Walton League and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Many of the municipalities have two or three representatives, while others (like Lake Elmo) have only one. One of West Lakeland's three spokespeople resigned by way of a letter, protesting the project and its remaining two members have been absent for the last two meetings.

Essentially, Xcel charged the committee with prioritizing eight potential sites scattered throughout the area to help determine the best location for the landfill. All of them are either gravel pits or quarries.

Prior to the committee's seventh meeting on June 22, Dillerud explained to Lake Elmo council members why he believed Xcel has been shortsighted in its plans to bury the fly ash and lacking in its exploration of alternatives.

"Fly ash is a viable product and much of the concrete in Minnesota is made with it," Dillerud explained to the council. In the mid-1980s, Dillerud worked for a firm that was planning to transport large amounts of fly ash from Wisconsin to Louisiana and familiarized himself with its properties then.

The high carbon content in the hard metal of fly ash makes it less suitable for cement, he said. However, once the material is treated to remove the carbon (an admittedly expensive process) the fly ash becomes quite marketable. Similarly, by scrubbing the power plant's smokestacks with pure lime (rather than the mix of fly ash and lime that the company intends to use) in order to remove sulfur, Dillerud asserted that the company could recover another usable substance: gypsum, a byproduct often used for Sheetrock.

"I'm convinced that, if they spent enough money, they could get two marketable products," he told the council.

Hitting a wall

But so far, the planner reported that he has been met with simple rejection and little rationale from the Xcel representatives when he raises the issue of alternative methods.

"To me, we've already got two failed landfills in Lake Elmo," Mayor Dean Johnston said following the June 22 meeting that tabled the item until July 13. "We should be considering the alternatives before burying dangerous (waste products)."

Council Members Liz Johnson and Anne Smith were present at the committee's meeting last Wednesday at the Bayport library in support of the resolution they had passed with the council the night before, requesting more research and disclosure about other potential solutions and project costs. So far, Xcel has declined to discuss any costs whatsoever — including those for a landfill.

"Our role in this is to provide support to the committee, and we certainly hope that their actions will produce a positive outcome," said Xcel representative Steve Ralstead.

The energy company is anticipating that outcome should arrive by July 29, the date it set for committee work to be completed. With that date fast approaching, Dillerud believes there is little chance that his proposals for alternatives will carry much weight, despite a growing amount of support from other committee members.

Although the committee's actions may not be legally binding, its recommendation will figure heavily in which location the company chooses to pursue as it will have the majority backing of that area's surrounding communities. The two sites under consideration in Lake Elmo are the Schaffer gravel pit on Jamaca Avenue and the Hamas gravel pit on Keats Avenue.

"It went on to the next agenda that Xcel has set for the committee to review the selection criteria applied to each of the sites to come up with some sort of a ranking," Dillerud said. "I expect that we'll start ranking the sites at the next meeting."

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