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Revised Cohasset wood plant environmental review: It'll be a 'carbon sink'

The adequacy of the original environmental assessment worksheet drew criticism, prompting the City Council to delay approval until March.

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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DULUTH — There will be enough aspen in the state for the new wood factory proposed for Cohasset, and the factory would offset all of its carbon emissions through the burning of waste wood and storing of carbon in its products.

That's according to an updated environmental assessment worksheet, or EAW, completed last week for Huber Engineered Woods’ $400 million oriented strand board, or OSB, plant .

The updated EAW comes after an environmental group, an Indigenous band, a competitor and two Bemidji-area business groups spoke out on the adequacy of the original EAW last year.

Engineered wood plant.jpg
Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Faced with those concerns in November, the Cohasset City Council, which is overseeing the EAW, sought to update the EAW and postponed a decision on whether to accept it until March. If the city accepts the revisions then, it would trigger a new 30-day public comment period.

The 800,000-square-foot facility is planned for 400 acres next to Minnesota Power’s Boswell Energy Center and would bring 158 jobs to the region. A project of that size would normally trigger a more stringent environmental impact statement, but the Minnesota Legislature also passed a law that specifically exempts the project from such a study .

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Key points in the updated EAW include:

A net reduction of carbon

The new analysis of greenhouse gases suggests the plant, by drying wood through the burning of waste wood and storing carbon in the wood products, could actually calculate out to a net reduction of 117,471 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions annually.

That is vastly different than the figure in the original EAW, which only said the plant was expected to release 446,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions annually. Such a figure would make it the state's 12th-largest emitter, according to the 2020 data tracked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The updated EAW said on-site emissions and off-site electricity production would mean 517,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions annually. But it can get that number so far below zero because the EPA and Minnesota Environmental Quality board also consider the burning of biomass as carbon neutral.

The EAW now subtracts how much carbon dioxide would be released by burning fines and bark for the plants furnace and dryer system — nearly 323,000 tons per year.

And the revised EAW subtracts an additional 233,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per year because of the ability for the plant's wood products to store carbon over their expected 60-year life.

"First, they can avoid the (greenhouse gas) emissions inherent in cement and steel production," the EAW said. "Additionally, these wood products store the CO2 taken up by the trees that are harvested and used as engineered timber."

In comments submitted on the original EAW, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy had criticized it for not doing such an analysis or even using "climate" in the original report.

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The updated EAW said denial of the plant would not help the state reach its carbon reduction goals.

"Importantly, even if there were no adjustments made for biogenic emissions or product sequestration and the Project was considered a net emitter of (greenhouse gases), rejection of the project would not improve net carbon emissions," the EAW said. "As a private company, (Huber Engineered Woods) has other out-of-state location options for the facility if the Cohasset facility does not get approved, and would pursue them."

Enough wood for another mill

After the first EAW was released, it drew sharp criticism from West Fraser, which operates an OSB plant in Solway, near Bemidji.

Company officials feared there wouldn't be enough aspen in the state to support another OSB plant, and urged a deeper examination of the state's wood resources as the original EAW only said aspen was "plentiful in the region."

The company also said an agency with "expertise" like the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources or Minnesota Pollution Control Agency should conduct the EAW, not Cohasset, which as already expressed "enthusiasm" for the project.

The updated EAW had professor Mike Kilgore, chair of the Department of Forest Resources at the University of Minnesota, review the state's forests.

He pointed to the most recent inventory of the state's aspen from 2018, which said 1.43 million cords per year of aspen are harvested, while the "annual sustainable harvest" is 2.36 million cords per year.

Huber will consume about 400,000 cords of wood per year, 75% of which would be aspen. Kilgore said that would only account for 30% of the available aspen for a sustainable harvest.

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"It is my opinion that timber resources will be made available to (Huber Engineered Woods) (and other users) in a sustainable, environmentally protective manner, and that the incremental consumption of fiber precipitated by the HEW project will not have the potential for significant environmental effects on Minnesota’s forest resources," he concluded.

Concerns by Leech Lake Band briefly addressed

Despite concerns raised by the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, whose reservation sits just 1 mile to the west of the project site and the project site sits within the territory ceded in the 1855 treaty, the original EAW was light on explaining possible effects to its reservation or its exercise of treaty rights.

The revised EAW largely pointed to the sustainability of Minnesota's forests and and said that if the law was followed when harvesting wood from county and state lands then the project "should not result in significant impacts to reserved tribal rights."

"Impacts to treaty rights, if any, will typically be closely tied to the particular characteristics and resources found in specific tracts of forest," the EAW said. "Without knowing the specific tracts and sequence of timber harvesting that will supply the facility, there are several reasons to believe that the exercise of treaty rights is unlikely to be adversely affected."

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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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