4/30/08

Union dues trump environmentalism

It took nearly six hours of debate, discussion and a few emotional outbursts for the largest economic development project in Waterloo's history to win local approval. Waterloo City Council members voted 6-1 Monday to annex 347 acres of land on the city's northeast side and approved the first of three required ordinance readings to zone 260 of those acres for the proposed Elk Run Energy Station. Councilman Quentin Hart, who represents Ward 4 where the power plant would locate, voted against both measures, citing public health concerns.

Councilman Steve Schmitt joined Hart in voting against suspending normal rules and rushing the project through --- forcing the second and potentially third readings of the zoning change to return to the council agenda next week.

Supporters of the planned $1.5 billion, 750-megawatt

coal-burning electric generating facility said the city needs the jobs and the region needs the power, opponents said it comes at too high a price --- namely, dangers to the health of area residents.

Project supporters in green T-shirts or wearing suits with buttons of support waited in line with opponents and their "No Coal Plant" buttons and shirts to get one of the 150 seats in the meeting room. Others were forced to watch on closed-circuit monitors in the lobby.

The public hearing drew many more supporters than an April 2007 hearing when council members approved the annexation and zoning change only to see it overturned by the state City Development Board. The current annexation configuration does not require that board's approval.

"We've gone above and beyond what is required in the zoning ordinance," said Mark Milburn, director of project development for Elk Run Energy Associates. "Our proposal is well thought out. We are here to build what will be a tremendous project for Waterloo, Black Hawk County and the entire region."

Among the new supporters were members of a municipal utilities coalition hoping to buy power from the plant.

"We are concerned about Iowa's aging fleet of coal-powered units," said Kris Stubbs, of Resale Power Group of Iowa, which represents 29 municipal utilities. "This new generation will greatly affect the economic vitality of our member communities."

Jared Bauch of Traer, an RPGI member, said that city can no longer secure long-term contracts and reasonable rates for power, and is banking on the Waterloo project to increase competition in the market.

Brian Rushing, manager of power origin for Elk Run Energy Associates' parent company, LS Power, said the company has letters of intent, primarily from municipal utilities, to use up to 500 megawatts of the plant's capacity. Renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, is not stable enough to meet baseline power needs for the area, he added.

Scott Smith, of Solon, was one of numerous members of the Iowa Building Trades Council AFL-CIO to speak in support of the project.

"In another 10 years the lights will start going dim," he said. "Where are you going to plug in your cell phone? �¿� Where are you going to plug in your hybrid vehicle?"

But the most passionate arguments of the evening came from plant opponents, many affiliated with Community Energy Solutions. They expressed concerns about negative health effects from power plant emissions.

"As a citizen of Waterloo I'm deeply concerned about the bleak and deadly future Waterloo would have with a coal-fired power plant," said Renata Sack.

Dr. Linda Huss, a physician, cited a study by University of Northern Iowa professor William Stigliani which detailed health risks caused by fine particulate matter emitted from such plants, even at current Environment Protection Agency standards.

"You are charged with protecting the public health," Huss told council members. "This facility will cause deaths in the community."

Nine-year-old Michaela Fishback, an Irving Elementary School fourth-grader, brought a purple stuffed animal to the podium when she delivered her remarks.

"I'm worried about my mom's asthma," she said. "I really personally think there should be a law against coal-fired power plants."

The Rev. Mary Robinson, a member of the county Board of Health that commissioned Stigliani's study, noted the plant was being located nearest to a large concentration of African-Americans, who are 2.5 times more likely than whites in the county to be hospitalized for respiratory ailments and 40 percent more likely than the state average.

"It may be economically unpopular to do what is morally right," Robinson said.

The local chapter of the NAACP also opposed the project.

Cathy DeSoto, of Waterloo, who has conducted research on the link between childhood autism rates and mercury released from coal plants, chastised city officials and others who suggested the council should not consider health issues when dealing with the annexation and land use matters.

Hugh Field, a Waterloo attorney, is a member of the Greater Cedar Valley Alliance and Waterloo Industrial Development Association, which both endorsed the plant.

He said concerns about air quality should be left up to the EPA and Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which must approve an emissions permit for the plant to operate.

"I don't know that any of you are engineers, scientists or physicists," Field told council members. "There will be people who will look at this, and I urge you to rely on them."

David Wilson, an environmental engineer for LS Power, said the DNR will stringently enforce air quality issues.

"The air emissions from the plant will be safe to public health and the environment," he said. "We'll use the top technology available for mercury removal."

Other concerns raised by opponents of the power plant included potential delays from coal trains, hazardous run-off from the plant site, dumping of fly ash at a quarry in the southern half of the county and carbon by-products that contribute to global warming.

Engineers hired by the company testified train delays would not exceed 10 minutes at crossings, while runoff from the city would be reduced. Wilson said the DNR will monitor the dumping of coal combustion by-products at the quarry.

In the end, economic development issues ruled the evening.

"Working people in Waterloo deserve the right to work," said Mike Mallaro, of Progress Cedar Valley, which supports the project. "There is no outcry in Cedar Falls over these two power plants that have operated for decades."

The plant is expected to have a $270 million economic impact and employ up to 1,200 workers during its four-year construction phase. It is projected to have a $25 million annual impact and 100 full-time jobs once it starts operations.

It will also pay an estimated $3.15 million in taxes, including $800,000 to the city of Waterloo.

Steve Dust, president of the Greater Cedar Valley Alliance, said the plant will help encourage confidence from other companies considering the Cedar Valley or the city's northeast industrial area, which includes the John Deere Donald Street plant, Tyson Fresh Meats and Eagle Ottawa Tannery, all directly west of the power plant site.

"Elk Run is a logical next step in the growth of this heavy industrial area," he said. "Economic development and community growth require energy."

Banker Joe Vich added, "We had a hiccup with the Monsanto project, and it really gave us a black eye in the community and the state. We cannot allow that to happen again."

Nearly a dozen representatives of the Building Trades Council took to the podium to support the project. LS Power has signed a project labor agreement to utilize union workers for a large portion of the construction.

Ritchie Kurtenbach, president of the Waterloo Building Trades Council, said Waterloo members worked on a similar plant in Council Bluffs.

"Now we have the opportunity to build this power plant in Waterloo," he said. "It would be an enormous loss to let it slip away."

In addition to the annexation and zoning votes, the council voted 6-1 --- Hart again with the lone dissent --- to reapprove a development agreement adopted during the zoning process last year.

In it, Elk Run Energy Associates agrees to pay for reconstructing Newell Road to serve the plant, extending utilities at its own cost, not to seek tax abatements and to make a number of community donations: $400,000 to the Highway 63 Gateway Community Development Corp.; $100,000 for a technical scholarship fund; and $150,000 for construction of a recreational trail on the city's east side.

The company has also agreed, outside of the development pact, to donated $100,000 to KBBG Radio and more than $400,000 to UNI for the study of renewable energy sources.

Plant opponent Ron Spears called those donations "bribes."

Mayor Tim Hurley has not masked his support for the project over the past year. But he delivered his first public statement on the matter before the vote.

"I believe we as a city government have done what we're supposed to do," he said, adding the plant has been "the most thoroughly discussed and dissected project" to come before the council in many years.

Hurley also defended council members who have been verbally attacked and had their character questioned during the process, referring to some comments as "loathsome."

He also said public health concerns are also economic.

"A strong economy creates jobs, which creates wealth" and allows residents to have decent shelter and nutritious food, he said. The power plant will help provide those jobs.

Assuming council members give final approval to the zoning change in coming weeks, Elk Run Energy Associates will still need the DNR permit, which will include another local public hearing. The Iowa Utilities Board must also approve the project before construction could begin.

LS Power's Milburn said the company hopes to begin construction in 2009 and be operational in 2013.

(wcfcourier.com)

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