Andy Driscoll, a writer and communications consultant in St. Paul, Minn., is a founding organizer of Citizens Alliance for a Safe Environment (The CASE).

Monday, 13 May 2002

ST. PAUL, Minn.

July 2001: It’s decided. We’re going to take legal action.

Here’s why: With nary a question nor an environmental impact statement, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued Gopher State Ethanol a permit to pollute based entirely on lies contained in the company’s application. The MPCA told us, the residents of St. Paul, that only an environmental action worksheet was necessary to determine the potential adverse effects of converting a century-old brewery to the first and only ethanol plant in the world.

That was in 1999, or around there. The dates get blurry, what with the whirlwind of activity.

Now everyone wants to know: What was MPCA thinking? Has our regulatory system for preserving decent air quality broken down completely?

The answer, apparently, is yes. More than a year ago, nearly every Minnesota citizen within a four-mile radius of the ethanol plant woke up one morning choking. What had been their friendly neighborhood brewery was now spewing the rancid fumes of fermenting corn and its byproduct, carbon dioxide.

The foul plume blanketed most of this city of 250,000 and many of its southern suburbs and sister cities. Suddenly, those living in the shadow of this stately old German-influenced building were throwing up in the streets. Noise that sounded like a jet aircraft in the backyard startled them out of their sleep in the small hours of the morning.

It wasn’t quite as bad up on the bluff, but bad enough to earn the ire of the city’s more affluent power brokers. Judges, mayors, lawyers, doctors, and other well-heeled citizens spent that summer the same way as their working-class neighbors: pinching their noses and swearing under their breath. Relief came only when the winds shifted — and then only at the expense of our friends on the other side of the city and outlying neighborhoods.

The West 7th/Fort Road Federation, one of the city’s 17 district planning councils, was the first organization in the area to raise a ruckus. Its offices are less than a block from the plant, and the group had originally been advocates for bailing out the doomed brewery in 1991, when the Heileman corporation prepared to shut the place down. A buyer was found: Bruce Hendry, an investor recruited to keep the 200-plus jobs intact with $10 million in city money and loan guarantees.

With Hendry only interested in sapping from the brewery whatever profits he could without any real improvements to the brew or the brewery as a workplace, the enterprise was a failure from the start. The company’s first brew, Landmark, was an unmitigated disaster of a beer, according to every beer-drinker in the upper Midwest. Hendry refused to adequately fund his factory’s renovation, failing to mitigate its dangerous asbestos flaking inside, failing to keep the facility free of filth, including glass shards which caked the floors and free-floating silica, and failing to keep clean it’s 19th-century restrooms. He was far more interested in seeking ways to extract more public dollars — and he found a gold mine in federal and state subsidies for producing ethanol from corn, much as several other rural breweries had done with fair success.

When Hendry and his new CEO came a-calling to the Minnesota legislature for their share of the ethanol pie, they assured local politicians and representatives that this was the job-saver of all time. State and federal policy assured a major market for ethanol by mandating its use in high percentages in every gallon of gasoline sold here. In testimony before the legislature and in the application for an air quality permit from the MPCA, Hendry and co. claimed that the environmental effects of ethanol manufacture amount to little more than a slight smell of roasted corn.

No one, least of all the Air Quality Division of the MPCA, bothered to require an independent assessment of the refinery’s likely emissions, so the permit was granted and demands for an environmental impact statement were brushed aside. The company’s bought-and paid-for environmental action worksheet was sufficient, said the folks at MPCA. And besides, they said, we no longer regulate “odor.”

But they do regulate emissions of certain chemicals embodied in that “odor,” and they do regulate noise — with standards that the plant violates by many decibels, especially after 10 p.m. every night. Still, the MPCA and the city have done little but wring their hands so far. So we’re looking for legal eagles.