Neighbors seek renewable power at recycling facility

By Anna Waugh

As the final destination for much of St. Paul’s recycling, including virtually all of the recycling coming out of the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood, the St. Paul Rock-Tenn plant occupies a considerable position in the area. Deprived of its longtime power source of steam, Rock-Tenn is scrambling to find an alternative source of power as it meets opposition from community members who fear negative health effects from the emissions caused by its current choice.Dr. Paul Connett, a chemist, addressed a full auditorium of more than 200 concerned neighbors and students on Nov. 14, in the John B. Davis Lecture Hall. The speech was sponsored by Neighbors Against the Burner, a local activist group that stands in opposition to a proposed refuse derived fuel, or RDF, incinerator at the Rock-Tenn plant.

Connett, who has spent over 20 years researching the dangers of incinerators, asked the audience to consider other options for power besides the incinerator, citing health risks, energy inefficiency and poor economic planning as some of the reasons to oppose a new burner.

For years, Rock-Tenn has used steam, which is piped five miles from the XCEL energy company’s High Bridge Power Plant, to power its recycling facility. However, after XCEL changed the power source at the plant from coal to natural gas, Rock-Tenn lost its source of steam, and has been forced to find new options. One possibility is an RDF incinerator, which would use sorted municipal waste as its fuel source.

The St. Paul Port Authority and Rock-Tenn proposed the RDF burner as a renewable energy solution that could provide the plant with the steam it needs, ensuring that the company would keep the plant, and the 500 jobs it provides, in St. Paul. However, questions have been posed as to whether RDF is actually a renewable energy source, and if it would be safe to install a burner in a densely populated part of St. Paul.

Connett said that installing an incinerator would emit dangerous toxins and other local particulate matter that could cause more lung cancer, bronchitis, and asthma.

Connett described what he believed to be a better plan for the future that would, instead of burning garbage, eliminate it at its source. He encouraged the audience to research and adopt a comprehensive zero-waste plan in St. Paul by 2020.

“You cannot run a throwaway society on a finite planet,” Connett said.

Encouraging composting and recycling in the Twin Cities would be a better option than burning the waste, he said. Burning will allow the generation of waste to continue, when the real goal should be to eliminate the generation of waste in the first place. He also added that incineration is not a sustainable option for St. Paul, and that the only way to achieve sustainability is to encourage better resource management.

“When you build an incinerator, it shows that you are not clever enough [to find other options],” Connett said.

Allan Muller, an environmental advocate at the non-profit agency Green Delaware, introduced Connett, and also spoke in opposition to the burner. He said that an RDF burner would emit more than five times as much carbon dioxide as a natural gas burner, six times as much as mercury and three times as much as particulate matter.

Many residents of the Mac-Groveland neighborhood have voiced concern with the proposed burner because the Rock-Tenn plant lies, at I-94 and Vandalia Street, only about two miles west of the college. Neighbors Against The Burner has expressed an interest in keeping the 500 jobs at the St. Paul recycling plant and finding a safe and renewable solution to the plant’s energy needs.