Recycling plant plans to install an incinerator

By Anna Waugh

The Rock-Tenn recycling plant in St. Paul, located less than two miles from Macalester’s campus at I-94 and Cretin Ave., has been powered by steam generated since 1984 at the High Bridge power plant, owned by XCEL energy, the leading provider of electricity to the Twin Cities. However, the conversion of the XCEL plant from coal to a natural gas-fired combined cycle unit last June left Rock-Tenn high and dry, looking for a new source of steam.The St. Paul recycling plant has been in operation since 1908. It was purchased by the Georgia-based Rock-Tenn corporation in 1997. The mill is Minnesota’s largest paper recycler and employs almost 500 workers, processes almost half of all of the recycled paper in Minnesota, and about one percent of the nation’s. Before it began contracting with Eureka Recycling, Macalester sent its paper waste to Rock-Tenn.

In a letter sent on January 18, 2006 to Rock-Tenn, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, St. Paul Port Authority president Kenneth Johnson, and other local officials wrote, “We want Rock-Tenn to continue to recycle 1,000 tons of paper each day and to provide 500 livable wage jobs.”

The letter also expressed support and pledged to assist in financing feasibility studies for using refuse-derived fuel as a source of energy for the plant. This has caused an audible public outcry.

RDF is derived from processed municipal waste, the garbage typically found in dumpsters. The processing system removes metals and glass, and turns what is left into a ‘fluff,’ made mostly of plastics, aluminum, and paper. However, there is no way to make sure that the process eliminates all of the heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and cadmium that are present in fluorescent light bulbs and batteries, or harmful chemicals from garden pesticides and household cleaners. This could even include dioxin, a chemical compound best known as an ingredient in herbicides, including Agent Orange, the notorious weapon used during the Vietnam War.

The fluff is then burned, and the particulates are released into the air where they can land anywhere that is upwind of the smokestacks. Macalester is less than two miles from the recycling facility.

The St. Paul Port Authority, with the aim of keeping the jobs at the St. Paul facility, has been a major player in this debate. Because of its role, the state legislature has granted the SPPA $4 million to conduct research on the facility, and authorized the Rock-Tenn Community Advisory Panel, a group of citizens who meet weekly to hear and discuss options and concerns with energy experts and health and government officials.

The SPPA has gone back and forth on the issue of RDF. The Twin Cities Daily Planet web site reported last March that Laurie Louder of the Port Authority said, “We intend to finance, construct and own this power plant facility.”

Yet at an RCAP meeting on Monday, Peter Kline, the Vice-President of Finance at the Port Authority, took a different stand.

“The Port Authority feels that they have been given substantial funding to find a fuel source that is not fossil-based and renewable. We would like to find a solution that would include fuels that are 100-percent not RDF,” Kline said.

Today, over 500 green lawn signs dot Saint Paul neighborhoods with the slogan, “Neighbors Against the Burner.” A group of concerned neighbors who began meeting to talk about the effects that the new burner would have on St. Paul adopted the slogan at the beginning of the year.

John Schott ’99, a member of the group, has been active in pushing for options other than RDF. He said that the group has been working to ensure that Rock-Tenn will both find a viable solution to its energy needs, and also commit to keeping the jobs that it provides.

It is a complicated issue, and complicated further by the fact that Rock-Tenn has not shown how much steam it will actually need in the coming years. One part of its effort since losing its steam source from XCEL has been to increase the plant’s efficiency.

“We are pushing pretty hard to reduce [our energy needs],” said Gary Mermen, a Rock-Tenn engineer.

The company has requested $800,000 for its 2008 budget, which is expected to reduce energy demand by 10 to 15 percent. This, Mermen said, is good not only for reducing energy, but for the business as well, and would give the company a two-to-three year return on the $800,000 investment.

Some, like RCAP representative Don Arnosti, argue that Rock-Tenn could do even more.

The company should commit to a 10- to 20-year energy reduction plan, Arnosti said.

“I would use my IRA to get a two-three year return on investment,” he said.