Inver Grove Heights officials unanimously rejected a rezoning decision that would have allowed a windshield washer fluid manufacturer to operate in the city after residents voiced concern about the safety of storing of up to 20,000 gallons of methanol on-site.
Letting Bulk Fluid Systems — which currently makes its product in St. Paul — set up shop would have required changing the parcel's zoning in the city's comprehensive plan, along with approving several other items.
The proposal would have constructed a 5,600-square-foot building to house tanker trucks, a windshield washer fluid blending room and office space. Four tanks, holding up to 40,500 gallons of either methanol or washer fluid total, would have sat outside.
"I take my cue from what [residents] want in their community," said Mayor Brenda Dietrich, explaining her vote. "It's difficult because I am business-friendly."
More than 20 residents showed up Monday night to oppose the plant; an online petition garnered more than 330 signatures. Discussion centered on just how dangerous methanol is and what plans would be in place if there was a spill or fire. The vicinity includes a stable, the Eagan YMCA and Emerald Hills manufactured home park.
"We brought up health and safety concerns about storing this much methanol above ground and what was the safety protocol" at the Planning Commission meeting, said Marta Haynes, an Inver Grove Heights resident who boarded her horse 300 feet from the proposed site. "The applicant ... basically blew off our concerns — did not have a rebuttal."
She also asked why a low-income community should have to bear all the risks of such a facility.
Methanol, also known as wood alcohol, is flammable and toxic. It can be used as a solvent and fuel, according to the National Institutes of Health, and may explode if ignited in a confined space.
It's also the main ingredient in windshield washer fluid, said Chris Willeke, president of Bulk Fluid Systems, whose father invented a system to automatically fill squeegee buckets full of the liquid by installing tanks of it in the canopy and running tubes down to containers.
The system, used at 1,800 gas stations in the Upper Midwest, makes plastic jugs unnecessary, a great ecological benefit, he said.
Willeke said he wanted to move to Inver Grove Heights because his company has outgrown its current facility, which is leased.
He said the company does have an emergency response plan with steps to take and contacts to call if there's a spill or fire, although neither has ever occurred.
He told the City Council that, according to OSHA, methanol is safe if located 50 feet or more from an open flame. He explained that his current 12,000-gallon methanol storage tank is designed with vents that occasionally release pressure and then close again. It passed inspections by the St. Paul fire marshal and is twice as close to houses as this site would be, Willeke said.
The council made its decision based on what residents said, rather than experts, he said.
Allan Hunting, Inver Grove Heights' city planner, said the other three approvals for the project hinged on whether the comprehensive plan amendment passed.
Questions about an emergency response plan would have been asked later, during the building permit stage, Hunting said.
Council Member Mary T'Kach said she voted against the zoning change because she feels the facility would have been too close to residential properties. She said she would feel the same about any future industrial business that might try to make the site work.
T'Kach said the southern parts of Inver Grove Heights have more land zoned for heavy industry "and that feels like a better fit."
Inver Grove Heights resident Monica Pitterle said she was "ecstatic" to see plans rejected. She sent the council information about how a half-mile evacuation is required if there's a methanol fire, with 660 feet required for a spill.
Two nearby projects that would have required rezoning to industrial use have also been introduced in the past three years but didn't pass, she said.
She doesn't understand why city staffers think it makes sense to rezone area properties to heavy industrial, Pitterle said.
"They seem focused on a path ... and it feels like city staff thinks that all of these pesky citizens are trying to interfere with their glorious plans," she said.
Hunting said one instance was proposed in a neighborhood study and the other was a developer's application, not a city-initiated project.
Willeke said he'll go back to trying to find a 1-acre site in an industrial area of the metro to accommodate the company's expansion.
"We are quite hard-pressed to find anything that's available," he said.