Huber Engineered Woods has resubmitted an environmental analysis for its planned $440 million Iron Range plant following pushback from environmentalists, business groups and a rival mill that demanded a more thorough review.
Last year, the state Legislature approved a carve-out for the plant allowing it to, for now, avoid undergoing the lengthier environmental impact statement process typically required for a project of this size.
The updated environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) amends the initial version of the shorter form filed last fall. It provides more detail on Minnesota's timber supply and specifics on greenhouse gas emissions for Huber's plant in Cohasset, Minn., where it will make oriented strand board.
The facility will emit nearly 450,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year, making it the state's 13th largest generator of greenhouse gases, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Huber says "the project will be a net carbon sink" as those emissions will be more than offset by the use of "carbon-neutral" wood-burning furnaces and carbon captured in the wood products it sells.
The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy wrote that oriented strand board, which is similar to particle board, "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 group urged a deeper review and wrote last fall that "like other corporations engaged in activities that affect Minnesota's environment, [Huber] has the resources and the responsibility to fully study and disclose those impacts before receiving governmental approval for this project."
The mill is expected to annually consume 400,000 cords of mostly aspen wood, or about 900,000 tons. The Bemidji Chamber of Commerce said last fall it opposed the project without an accounting of how an increased timber harvest would affect the environment — and West Fraser's Norbord mill in Solway, Minn.
The head of the University of Minnesota's Department of Forest Resources wrote that the mill's wood consumption "will not have the potential for significant environmental effects on Minnesota's forest resources."
"With the addition of the [Huber] facility, Minnesota's statewide timber harvest would be approximately 3.21 million cords a year, still more than 2.2 million cords below the estimated maximum harvest level for both timber and non-timber resource sustainability," Michael Kilgore wrote in an analysis of available timber supplies performed for the company.
Though more than a dozen permits are needed from the local to the federal level, the project has already received millions in taxpayer subsidies, including a $27 million state production incentive and a $15 million forgivable loan from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board.
West Fraser, a competitor that also makes oriented strand board, said officials are getting ahead of themselves on this Huber project.
"Understandable enthusiasm does not eliminate the need for careful scrutiny or robust application of applicable laws and regulations, including environmental review," Andrew Moratzka wrote on behalf of the Canadian wood products company.
The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, whose reservation borders are a mile west of the proposed plant, said a full environmental impact statement is needed to explore possible effects on treaty rights.
The Cohasset City Council is overseeing the EAW process, which is typically handled by state agencies. The council is expected to make a decision this spring on whether the review is adequate and the project can proceed without an environmental impact statement.
Huber hopes to begin construction on the 750,000-square-foot facility later this year and have the plant running by 2025. It is expected to employ about 150 people.
"We appreciate the feedback we received from community members and stakeholders, and we revised the EAW accordingly to take into account the feedback we received," Brian Carlson, Huber's president, said in a statement. "We intend to continue working with interested parties to move the project toward construction."