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Proposed plant would turn trash into fuel

A Minnesota company is looking to Empire Township as the site of a plant designed to turn garbage to black gold.

On Tuesday night Rational Energies presented a plan for a 200,000-square-foot plant that could start turning trash and other waste material into high-quality diesel fuel as early as 2012.

"We represent what everyone talks about as the next generation of biofuels, said Ed Driscoll chief executive officer of the approximately 18-month-old company. "This is not biodiesel. This would be considered No. 1 diesel fuel under all specifications."

Driscoll imagines selling the fuel the plant will produce to a wholesaler or directly to bus companies and other businesses with large heavy-vehicle fleets.

The biomass gasification plant would be located on 52 acres at the southwest corner of Highway 52 and County Road 46.

Some of the technologies the company would use are new. Others are scaled-down versions of existing technologies.

The process works like this: Garbage haulers bring their loads into the Rational Energies facility and dump it onto a concrete floor. Magnets remove any metal from the material, then the trash is chopped fine in oversize shredders and heated to about 1,500 degrees in a sand-floored room. The garbage never burns, but as the trash heats it is either reduced to ash or converted to what is known as synthesis gas. About half the gas produced is distilled into diesel fuel. The other half is burned to sustain the process.

The ash produced would be taken to a landfill.

Driscoll called the Empire site his company's preferred location for the plant, which would be the company's first and the first of its kind. He likes the easy access provided by two major roads. And he said the township government has been easy to work with. Driscoll doesn't expect there will be a lot of impact on the area around the plant. He said the building, if it is built, would resemble a warehouse.

"Odor is really restricted to the building. Noise is restricted to the building. There will certainly be some truck traffic, but you have 30,000 cars a day going down 52 right now."

Driscoll expects about 700 vehicle trips a day at the plant when it is in full swing. That includes trucks and employee vehicles. He compared that to about 2,300 trips produced by a truck stop.

But the idea didn't necessarily sit well with residents who attended Tuesday's meeting. They raised questions about noise and truck traffic, and they expressed doubts about whether the company could truly contain the smell of the tons of garbage it will bring in.

Residents also expressed doubts about whether the technology would do what Driscoll and the others at Rational Energies say it will.

"It sounds like a pipe dream to me," Rosemount resident Myron Napper said.

The Empire plant would be the first of its kind, but Driscoll said the technologies that are part of to the process have been proved in different uses or at different scales. There is a pilot-scale plant in place now in North Carolina, but Rational Energies hasn't yet started its tests there.

Rosemount city planner Jason Lindahl attended Tuesday's meeting to raise concerns on behalf of the city. He pointed out the proposed plant's location near the University of Minnesota's planned UMore development said the city has concerns about public safety, with the production and storage of an explosive material.

A representative from Coates raised concerns about the effect the plant would have on property values in his city.

The plant as proposed would produce about 2,000 barrels of diesel fuel a day, a tiny fraction of what Flint Hills Resources produces just up the road.

"It's a spit in the bucket. It really is," Driscoll said.

The Empire Township Planning Commission held public hearings Tuesday to consider whether to amend the township's comprehensive plan to include an industrial land use and whether to amend zoning codes to allow alternative-energy facilities.

The facility will also need to create an environmental impact statement and get other permits. That process could take a year or more.

Driscoll said the plant would create about 40 jobs during the design process, 250 during the 18-month construction process and 90 full-time jobs when it is up and running.

"These are substantial jobs," Driscoll said. "We're assuming these people are going to patronize local businesses. They're going to eat."