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The proposed Cohasset wood plant would be Minnesota's 12th-largest emitter. The Legislature exempt it from more rigorous environmental review

That less stringent environmental assessment worksheet has been the subject of criticism.

FILE: Huber Zip Sheathing
Huber Engineered Woods' Zip Sheathing system used on a home under construction. The sheathing's green surface is an "air- and water-resistive barrier" to eliminate the need for house wrap. The company is planning a new factory in Cohasset that will manufacture the product as well as its Advantech subflooring system and other engineered-wood products. 2009 file / Duluth News Tribune
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A board plant proposed for Cohasset but exempt from a full environmental review is prompting concerns.

Huber Engineered Woods, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, announced in June it plans to open a $400 million, 800,000-square-foot oriented strand board, or OSB, plant on 400 acres next to Minnesota Power's Boswell Energy Center.

The project, heralded as potentially bringing in 158 much-needed jobs to the region, supporting the logging industry and helping offset effects of Minnesota Power's Boswell plant going coal-free by 2035 , quickly had support from state and local officials who promised millions in grants and loans for the plant.

But a project of that size would normally automatically trigger an environmental impact statement, or EIS, a rigorous review of the project's environmental effects and examination of alternatives that could take about one year to complete. So the Minnesota Legislature also passed a law that specifically exempt the project from an EIS and instead have it undergo a less stringent environmental assessment worksheet, or EAW, which was completed in September .

The law that exempted the project from an environmental impact statement was first reported by MinnPost in June .

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Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Commissioner Mark Phillips told MinnPost that Minnesota was competing with other states for the plant and an EIS would take a year, which was too long for the company. Meanwhile, an EAW takes closer to six months.

Huber officials could not be reached by the News Tribune on Tuesday.

More quietly than the support for the project, the less-stringent EAW has several environmental and business groups, an Indigenous band and another OSB manufacturer worried. Their concerns were outlined in written comments the News Tribune obtained through a public records request from the city of Cohasset.

The 120-page EAW said the project would emit 446,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, which includes carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, mainly through its wood burners (which can also be fired with natural gas) used to dry the wood.

Compared to 2020 data tracked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency , the plant would be the 12th-largest emitter of CO2 in the state.

Minnesota top carbon dioxide equivalent emitters.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Only seven power plants, two refineries and two taconite plants in the state would emit more carbon dioxide equivalents per year than the new plant.

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"But the EAW does not even mention the words 'climate change,' let alone consider the effects such a huge new infusion of (greenhouse gas) emissions would have in our state," the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy wrote in comments on the EAW. "The use of OSB may have some positive climate effects, due to the sequestration of carbon within the product and its use in place of other, more carbon-intensive construction materials. But the EAW makes no attempt to quantify or discuss those effects."

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe raised concerns that the EAW failed to address potential impacts on its reservation, which is only 1 mile to the west of the project site. Additionally, the project falls within the territory ceded in the 1855 Treaty.

"The Tribe has significant concerns about the lack of information provided in the EAW, and questions regarding how the Project will affect the Reservation and Ceded Territory environment, including the Tribe’s ability to exercise treaty rights and maintain traditional cultural, spiritual, and religious practices," the band wrote.

Concerns on the EAW spurred debate at the Cohasset City Council meeting Nov. 9, which was then extended to Nov. 16.

The city of Cohasset, the responsible government unit conducting the EAW, described the special City Council meeting Nov. 16 as a "public hearing" on the agenda.

Some had arrived ready to comment on the EAW, expecting it to be a continuation of last week's hearing.

But an Itasca Community Television livestream of the meeting showed Cohasset Mayor Greg Hagy wrapping up the meeting within three minutes.

After the pledge of allegiance, Hagy extended the EAW consideration until Tuesday, when he said the council will vote on it. He also noted all indoor "Light the Night" events were canceled due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

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"That's all I have tonight," Hagy told those in attendance. "Not taking any questions."

Reached by phone after the meeting, Hagy told the News Tribune that the meeting was held to extend the EAW deadline to next week.

"We had some serious questions come at the first meeting," Hagy said. "We wanted a chance for the company and for us to reevaluate, to make sure that we covered all the bases."

Engineered wood plant.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

At next week's meeting, the council will vote on whether it should adopt the EAW as is, extend it or order the more rigorous EIS.

Asked if the company had told him it would only come to Minnesota if it was an EAW and not an EIS — what MinnPost reported the company had told the IRRR — Hagy said he had not heard that.

Hagy said he supports the project and was "a little surprised there's pushback."

Asked if he could still fairly consider the EAW when he already supports the project and said it will benefit Cohasset, Hagy said: "That's exactly what we're doing — we'll make sure we cover all the bases."

But not everyone agrees.

In public comments, an attorney for the West Fraser OSB plant in Solway, near Bemidji, said an agency with "expertise" like the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources or Minnesota Pollution Control Agency should conducting the EAW, not Cohasset, which as already expressed "enthusiasm" for the project.

The company wrote that it "appreciates the City’s perspective that a proposal that could be a 'once in a 40-year project' that is like 'another Metrodome' is important and understands why the City may wish to embrace the proposal. But understandable enthusiasm does not eliminate the need for careful scrutiny or robust application of applicable laws and regulations, including environmental review."

In an interview with the News Tribune on Tuesday evening, West Fraser officials said they're also concerned there wouldn't be enough aspen in the state to support another OSB plant, something the EAW only says is "plentiful in the region." The News Tribune has reported the Cohasset plant would rely heavily on aspen, somewhere in the range of 400,000-500,000 cords each year.

"We haven't seen enough information that helps us feel comfortable that there's enough wood to satisfy another very large OSB mill," said Cam Lewis, general manager of West Fraser's Solway OSB plant. "So we're worried that would hurt us, at a minimum, or might do worse."

Greater Bemidji, an economic development group, and the Bemidji Area Chamber of Commerce submitted letters encouraging a study on the state's available wood before the Huber project moves forward.

Hagy dismissed the West Fraser's concerns as "self-interests" because they would be a competitor to Huber.

Jack Wallingford, West Fraser's regional manager, said the company has "no problem competing," but said the subsidies to Huber lead to an unlevel playing field.

Huber will receive a $15 million from the IRRR, forgivable if the facility employs 100 people over its first six years. It's also set to receive $20 million from the Department of Employment and Economic Development, which also approved $2 million to Cohasset so it can extend water and sewer lines to the site. Another state law also would pay Huber $7.50 for every 1,000 square feet of OSB produced, which could total up to $28.5 million over 10 years beginning in 2025.

"Fundamentally, the state of Minnesota and IRRRB have committed significant public money to this project … and frankly, we have to compete against that, and we start in the hole," Wallingford said. "So the fact is that we're out fighting for the survival of our manufacturing location. If we didn't, we're not doing our job."

This story was updated at 11:08 a.m. Nov. 18 with a link to the Itasca Community Television livestream of the meeting. It was originally posted at 2:08 p.m. Nov. 17.

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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