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Olmsted County’s Waste-to-Energy Facility is the linchpin of a solid waste program that includes facilities for yard waste, recyclables, hazardous waste and other household waste.

A national report on waste incinerators labels Olmsted County’s waste-to-energy facility one of the “dirty dozen” when it comes to particulate matter emissions, even as the facility continues to beat state expectations.

“The dirty dozen lists illustrate the incinerators, among the 73 in the country, that emit the largest amounts of air pollutants,” states the report produced by the Tishman Environment and Design Center at The New School in New York City.

But Tony Hill, the county’s director of environmental resources, said the five-year-old data used to compile the report fails to reflect efforts aimed at continual improvement at the site and the rates that remain below allowable levels set by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Measured in milligrams per cubic meter for emission tests, the largest particles must fall under 70 for the facility’s two original incinerators and below 24 for the larger incinerator added in 2010. In the most recent tests, the amounts measured 2.01 and 5.65 in the oldest burners and 4.25 in the newer unit, according to information provided by the facility’s regulatory compliance coordinator, Mike Cook.

Annual rates, measured in pounds, saw Olmsted County reduce the numbers by approximately half, from 31,578 pounds of the finest matter in 2014 to 14,479 to 2017, according to MPCA data.

Larger particles were reduced from 34,562 pounds in 2014 to 17,593 in 2017.

Darin Broton, the MPCA’s senior adviser and director of communications, said the air-pollution measures reported by waste-to-energy facilities are typically below levels reported by other energy-generating facilities throughout the state.

When it comes to other air pollutants — mercury, lead, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide — Olmsted County’s facility wasn’t listed among the dirty dozen in the Tishman report.

Hill said those measures remain well below MPCA guidelines.

“We go above and beyond what is expected of us,” he said.

Matt Anderson, the facility’s plant manager, said the new burner has twice the capacity, but is permitted with stricter allowable levels than the older, smaller incinerators.

He said meeting those expectations is the result of continued effort toward improvement.

“We have a very good track record for putting the necessary dollars into maintaining that high integrity,” he said.

Hill said the consistent upgrades counter a claim made with the release of the Tishman report.

“These aging facilities are too expensive to maintain, too risky to finance, and too costly to upgrade,” Ana Baptista, associate director of the Tishman Environment & Design Center at the New School said in a statement as the report was released last week. “Incinerators in the U.S. are operating under increasingly volatile economic and regulatory conditions that threaten their major sources of revenue, tipping fees and energy sales.”

The report notes many facilities have a 30-year lifespan.

While the Olmsted County facility has passed the 30-year mark, the addition of a third incinerator and regular schedule of upgrades has lengthened its potential lifespan.

John Helmers, the county’s former director of environmental resources, who is now the executive director of the Minnesota Solid Waste Administrators Association, said the work has been done with specific intent.

“It’s not like they are sitting there with 30-year-old equipment and making it run,” he said.

Olmsted County Board Chairman Jim Bier said he expects commissioners will continue to support efforts to keep the facility running with continued improvement in mind.

“If there is something that we could do to reduce those particulate numbers … the board would look at it and would decide probably to do it,” he said. “We spend a lot of money out there, but it’s the right thing to do.”

Local Sierra Chapter Organizing Representative Rick Morris said the impact needs more study, especially in the wake of disastrous results in other parts of the state and nation, as well as ongoing potential for other air pollutants.

“One of our big concerns is that there is no air-quality monitors downtown to measure how this incinerator and buses and traffic might impact the health of the visitors and workers in downtown Rochester,” he said, noting a study of the city’s air quality underway.

Morris said the city’s only air-quality monitor is at Franklin Elementary School, 1801 9th Ave SE, which is approximately three miles from the waste-to-energy plant. He said results from the monitor indicate air-quality improvements have occurred in the past decade.

“We hope that represents the true data for our air quality throughout the city, but we know we can’t simply trust that without more study,” he said, noting some variances have already been found in other parts of the city.

Anderson said county staff is interested in any results that could point toward paths of improvement, noting the Tishman report has already spurred discussions of ways to address fluctuations seen in particulate matter reports in recent years.

At the same time, he said simply closing the plant wouldn’t necessarily be the most environmentally friendly option.

“We would have had to expand our landfill three times over if we had not been combusting the waste we are,” he said of waste that has been converted to energy at the plant.

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Local Government Reporter

Randy is the Post Bulletin's local government reporter, covering the city of Rochester and Olmsted County, as well as Destination Medical Center efforts. He joined the Post Bulletin staff in 2014.