Lake Elmo ponders ‘fly ash fund’ donation

The members of Lake Elmo’s City Council seemed to agree on April 4 that, compared to most other city costs, $1,500 is not a large amount of money. Nevertheless, when requested by nearby West Lakeland Township for assistance in evaluating and monitoring Xcel Energy’s plan to locate a hazardous waste landfill in the small St. Croix Valley community, Lake Elmo unanimously opted to withhold its $1,500 until presented with a clearer budget and plan of action.
The city was sent a letter from the chair of West Lakeland’s Board of Supervisors, John McPherson, on March 27 that outlined Xcel’s intention to use one of the township’s gravel pits (near Interstate 94) as the location for a new dump where it would eventually dispose of 100,000 tons of a solid-waste material called fly ash every year.
The letter, which was also sent to six other St. Croix Valley communities, goes on to request financial support to hire professional consultants that might critique Xcel’s plan, forcing the utility company to either relocate or, at the very least, take all the proper environmental precautions.
“It’s not just a West Lakeland problem, it’s a St. Croix Valley problem,” McPherson said last week after Lake Elmo’s meeting. “People are concerned about pollution and about the traffic (that a landfill will bring).”
According to Xcel project manager Darrell Knutson, the process for finding a new fly ash disposal began in the summer of 2004, when West Lakeland, which lies along the St. Croix river east of Lake Elmo, was quickly identified as a potential candidate due to its close proximity to the company’s coal-burning plant in Bayport.
But West Lakeland residents immediately opposed the proposal, primarily because of the known dangers posed by the coal by-product the company would be permanently burying beneath their ground.
Fly ash is a powder-like residue so fine it can become airborne and inhaled, sometimes leading to lung infections and skin diseases when consumed by air or water.
Ironically, Xcel’s potential pollution dilemma comes as a result of its participation in the Metropolitan Emissions Reduction Project, for which it is converting from its hybrid coal product to cleaner burning western coal only. The move should improve metro air quality, but will require twice as much coal to do it.
Knutson said that, with the influx of coal production, the company is predicting its existing fly ash landfill in Oak Park Heights will be full by 2010. Which is why it is hoping to have a new site up and running by the summer of 2009.
“We want one facility that will last the lifetime of the power plant,” said Knutson, who has a draft of an environmental assessment worksheet for the project currently under review by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “We will follow a preordained timeline. During the process there will be a period of time for the public to review the process (through) public hearings.”
Last summer, Xcel took a preemptive step to try to gauge public opinion and, some believe, gain support from surrounding communities for its choice of West Lakeland to locate the landfill. The company formed an advisory committee of representatives from several surrounding cities and townships, including Lake Elmo, and identified several potential sites in their communities for a fly ash disposal (two Lake Elmo gravel pits were on the list at the time).
But due in part to Lake Elmo City Planner Chuck Dillerud’s advice that the material could be recycled and reused (at greater cost) rather than buried, the committee members ultimately decided it would not recommend a site until Xcel presented them with some alternative plans that did not have the material buried in the St. Croix Valley at all. Consequently, Xcel disbanded the committee in July and, several months later, announced its plans to gain approval for a West Lakeland landfill.

Landfill lamenting
Some Lake Elmo council members expressed frustration that, despite knowing of Xcel’s decision for several months, West Lakeland officials had taken no action until sending the request for support to surrounding communities at the end of last month.
“I’m quite disappointed that it’s been three months and they’re just getting started,” Mayor Dean Johnston said on April 4. “(From their letter), it sounds like they don’t have a plan and might ask for more (money).”
Indeed, McPherson’s language in the letter refers to “an initial amount of $1,500” that would go toward a “fly ash fund” that could be used to get professional opinions of the company’s environmental assessment worksheet, environment impact statement and conditional use permit application, as well as fund potential court actions.
However, according to McPherson, the letter was drafted and sent with the full encouragement of a group of representatives from surrounding communities, including Johnston himself. McPherson, a farmer, said he was approached by members of the Lower St. Croix Valley Alliance, a group Johnston called “an informal organization with no budget and the goal of improving communications between the municipalities in the area.”
“I had six mayors and (leaders of) two townships in my house one night talking about (the landfill proposal) and they suggested we have to do something about it to get the word out,” McPherson said of the alliance that includes the cities of Lakeland, Afton, Lake Elmo, St. Mary’s Point, Lakeland Shores, Lake St. Croix Beach and May Township. “I thought that would be a good idea. So we did.”
Johnston stressed that Lake Elmo is not officially opposing Xcel’s choice of site for its fly ash disposal, but that its chief concern is to protect the groundwater and aquifer shared by many Washington County communities. He said that putting the landfill somewhere else or trying to get Xcel to explore Dillerud’s recycling plan are only some of the options. But having a viable plan of some kind is the first step the group must take, with West Lakeland leading the way.
“I have no doubt that Lake Elmo would be willing to support (contributing money to McPherson’s ‘fly ash fund’),” Johnston said. “(But) West Lakeland has to take the lead on this one because it’s in their area.”
On April 4, one council member was ready to commit the requested $1,500 immediately while asking for a plan of action and budget.
“I am prepared to vote to give them $1,500 because that is a pittance in relation to what a fight like this entails,” said Council Member Rita Conlin, who ultimately voted in favor of requesting more details without committing money. “This show of support should happen now and not waiting for some kind of plan that we’re going to critique them against.”
McPherson said, though he had no idea about a budget for this endeavor, he expected one of the first steps would be to hire an expert consultant of some kind to advise the township and its surrounding interested parties.
According to Knutson, the public will have plenty of opportunity to get involved in the process and there should be little cause for concern. He said the Oak Park Heights facility had been in operation since 1972 without a problem and precautions are already being taken for a new landfill.
“We have established monitoring wells and data will be collected from those wells to give assurances for exactly what occurs in the sub-soils of the site,” Knutson said. “In the event that anything should ever be released, it will be mitigated.”

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