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Cohasset accepts revised environmental review for proposed wood plant

The City Council heard no in-person public comments during Tuesday evening's brief meeting.

Huber Zip Sheathing used on a home under construction.
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 — The Cohasset City Council accepted the revised environmental review for a proposed wood factory but took no in-person public comments during a brief meeting Tuesday evening.

The updated environmental assessment worksheet, or EAW, for the Huber Engineered Woods’ $400 million oriented strand board, or OSB, plant came after an environmental group, an Indigenous band, a competitor and two Bemidji-area business groups spoke out on the adequacy of the original EAW late last year.

With the EAW deemed “adequate” by the city of Cohasset, state agencies must now consider permits for the plant.

During the approximately 17-minute meeting, held in the City Hall’s community center to accommodate dozens of supporters and opponents, Cohasset mayor Greg Hagy said he and the council would receive only the written comments submitted over a 30-day public-comment period in January and February.

“We know that there may be folks here tonight interested in speaking for or against the EAW project, but we will not be accepting public comments tonight. … We decided in the beginning to only consider comments submitted to the city in writing,” Hagy said.

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As the council took roll call, opponents of the plant interrupted, demanding they have time to speak.

“Why didn’t you let the people come here to speak?” said Winona LaDuke, executive director of Honor the Earth, an Indigenous-led environmental organization. “It was a public hearing.”

In a news release Monday, Honor the Earth said they had previously been told by the city that public comments would be allowed, only for the city to then change its mind “in direct contravention of the purpose of Minnesota’s Open Meetings Law,” the group said.

The agenda on Cohasset’s website still lists Monday’s meeting as an “open public hearing.”

Earlier in the afternoon, company officials and supporters of the project held a “Huber Huddle” at Timberlake Lodge in Grand Rapids.

Brian Hanson, president and CEO of APEX, a Duluth economic development agency, said the project will help the community weather the phase-out of Minnesota Power’s Boswell Energy Center coal-fired units.

The project would bring 158 jobs to the region and the 800,000-square-foot facility is planned for 400 acres next to Boswell, which represents a significant amount of the area’s employment and tax base.

“There is a burning platform here and Huber Engineered Wood represents a really great opportunity to help replace that platform,” Hanson said in a telephone interview.

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A project of Huber’s size would normally trigger a more stringent environmental impact statement, but the Minnesota Legislature passed a law that specifically exempts the project from such a study .

In written comments, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe said the project should get the full environmental impact statement, which is more stringent than an EAW.

The band, with its reservation just one mile away, also said it was left out of necessary tribal consultation in the lead-up to the plant's announcement in June 2021.

The project has the backing of a number of trade groups representing loggers, timber producers and truckers.

“The production capacity of the Huber mill will restore a part of the lost mill capacity Minnesota has suffered in the last 13 years and ensure Minnesota can utilize the over 10 million acres of over rotation (mature) aspen and the large volume of growing aspen (most recently harvested in the 1980s) coming to rotation in the next 5-10 years,” Mike Forsman, executive director of the Associated Contract Loggers and Truckers of Minnesota, wrote in comments. “The additional volume is sustainable and necessary for maintaining healthy forests, wildfire reduction, wildlife habitat and the environment.”

But a competitor in the industry is opposed.

West Fraser, which has an OSB plant in Solway, near Bemidji, reiterated its concerns there wouldn’t be enough timber, namely aspen, in the state to support another mill.

In the updated EAW, Mike Kilgore, chair of the Department of Forest Resources at the University of Minnesota, said aspen’s “annual sustainable harvest” was 2.36 million cords per year and only 1.43 million cords were harvested in 2018. Huber would use about 300,000 cords of aspen per year, leaving plenty for Huber, Kilgore said.

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But in written comments on the EAW, West Fraser included letters from professional forester Robert Wright, of Ohio, and forest biometrician Stephen Fairweather, of Washington, who both listed numerous issues with the EAW.

Roberts pointed out that while Kilgore relied on a 2019 report from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the report itself relies heavily on environmental impact statements from 1994 and 2006, which were “too dated to reliably analyze the potential impacts” of the project, he said.

The company also again questioned why the City of Cohasset was the EAW’s responsible governing unit, or RGU, instead of the DNR or Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which would have more expertise.

“The City disagrees,” the city wrote in a response to the comments. “The City was properly assigned to the RGU by rule. To clarify, the EQB regulations provide that if a proposed project fall into more than one mandatory EAW category, then the RGU is the entity with greatest responsibility for supervising or approving the Proposed Project.”

The project must still obtain permits from state regulators, but it has eyed opening as soon as 2024.

Legal challenges from Honor the Earth and others are expected, however.

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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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