New 3M plan: little pollution, much resistance

3M incinerator in Cottage Grove
The primary incinerator building and additional emission control equipment in Cottage Grove. Area residents oppose 3M's new plan to import waste chemicals to aid in the disposal of other hazardous materials, even though the company says pollution levels would only minimally rise.
courtesy 3M

Residents in Cottage Grove are once again fighting with 3M over waste chemical concerns--even though the company's new enterprise would produce little change in pollution levels.

3M wants to bring in waste chemicals from outside its own operation to burn at a hazardous waste incinerator that's been in operation for decades. The resistance stems largely from mistrust arising from earlier pollution concerns.

A cost saving measure

3M has been eliminating some of the solvents it once used in making its products and is now using more water-based processes.

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But it still has some hazardous materials to dispose of, and it does that by burning them at its Cottage Grove plant on the Mississippi River. It's been doing that since the 1970s, and in the past it's had enough of those highly flammable solvents to operate the hazardous waste incinerator at a very efficient level.

"The goal of an incinerator is to keep it at between 1800 and 2000 degrees, approximately," 3M spokesman Bill Nelson said. "And with less solvent, you need to keep that temperature at that level, so you use natural gas or fuel oil."

Nelson said recently the company has reduced its flammable solvents to the point that it's been spending between $1 million and $2 million dollars a year on fuel just to keep the burner hot enough.

So the company has asked the state for permission to import some solvents from a business in Eau Claire that disposes of these wastes for other companies.

Minimal pollution increase, plenty of opposition

The 3M plan wouldn't generate much of an increase in pollution, according to the state, but it has generated a lot of opposition in Cottage Grove.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency engineer Greg Kvaal said in this case, it's not about the numbers. He said emissions from the incinerator have never exceeded permitted levels, and those levels are far lower than other nearby industrial operations like Marathon Oil in St. Paul Park and Gerdeau Ameristeel in St. Paul.

"The actual increases from this modification would be in pounds per year, so it's very small," Kvaal said. "But I guess once you're sensitized to what things that can be in the groundwater, can be in the air, the volume doesn't matter anymore; it's just that you don't want any more."

At a city council meeting last night, Cottage Grove residents packed the room to complain about 3M's plans for its incinerator.

But some of them are still angry about what happened before. The company's industrial wastes leaked from area landfills and ended up in the drinking water in Cottage Grove and other nearby communities. 3M and the MPCA have worked out a deal to clean up the chemicals. That work is still underway.

Combine 3M's incinerator plan with the leaking landfills, and what you get is residents like Trish Thompson, a former 3M employee. She's unwilling to support anything that might put even small amounts of pollution into the environment, even if it means saving 3M a lot of money.

"They made $900 million the fourth quarter, they can afford to burn a little bit of natural gas to keep this incinerator going, or get the heck out of the business," she said.

The city has no way to stop 3M from bringing in new chemicals, if the state approves the company's request.

At last night's meeting, the city council approved an ordinance prohibiting any commercial incinerators in the city. That won't affect 3M's current plans, but it would prevent the company from selling the burner to someone else.

3M spokesman Bill Nelson said 3M wants to be a good citizen, both in Cottage Grove and in the larger environment.

"We believe that our proposal makes perfect sense, its good for the environment, certainly we stand to save a fair amount of money, and in today's economy we think that's a good thing for businesses, so we would certainly just like to see this process play out," he said.

The MPCA will hold public hearings on the revised permit in April or May.

The incinerator is the subject of a possible enforcement action. In an email to MPR late Thursday, MPCA hazardous waste inspector Raymond Bissonnette said the agency is considering possible penalty against 3M for a 2008 inspection of the incinerator.

Bissonnette said the action will cite violations mostly dealing with storage or labeling of containers, or paperwork issues. He said 3M has addressed identified problems in a timely manner.