Cohasset Mayor Greg Hagy is having a hard time understanding concerns over construction of a wood products plant in his city.

“I just don’t understand the push back,” Hagy said. “We need the jobs, the loggers need the jobs, the construction union needs the jobs.”

Huber Engineered Woods of Charlotte, N.C., plans to build a roughly $440 million, 750,000 square-foot oriented strand board (OSB) manufacturing plant at Minnesota Power’s Boswell Energy Center in Cohasset.

The project would create 158 new jobs at the plant, 300 to 400 construction jobs and an estimated three to four times that number of jobs in the logging, trucking, hospitality and supply industries.

But concerns are now being raised over the project by an OSB competitor, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and an environmental advocacy group.

In a 244-page Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) public comment document, the Leech Lake Band says “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 cultural, spiritual, and religious practices.”

The tribe asks that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) be performed on the project.

West Fraser, a Vancouver, B.C. wood products company which operates an OSB plant in Solway, Minn., near Bemidji, says the city should withdraw the EAW as legally deficient and consult with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Minnesota Environmental Quality Board to conduct a proper analysis.

“It appears that the EAW is seeking to avoid reconciling an OSB facility that consumes 400,000 cords of wood per year with a recent and extensive analysis suggesting this new consumption is at odds with the sustainability of Minnesota’s state and private forests,” West Fraser said in its EAW comments.

The Bemidji Chamber of Commerce asks that an EIS be performed to determine what impacts increased timber harvest would have on Minnesota’s environment.

The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy commented that the proposed plant would produce “massive amounts of greenhouse gases each year, which would have incredibly significant effects on Minnesota’s environment.”

Huber Engineered Woods said Friday it will address questions raised in the EAW comments.

“In the coming weeks, we will continue to work on providing the data and information necessary to demonstrate how the project meets state environmental requirements for any groups still unsure about the impact of this project on the community,” the company said in a statement.

The company said it appreciates the issues raised by various stakeholders as part of the public review process and believes by following the EAW application process, it has followed due procedures outlined by the State of Minnesota. The company said it is willing to engage in meaningful conversations with local organizations and partners as needed and is committed to transparent, long-term partnerships in the community and state.

A state law approved during the 2021 Minnesota Legislative session exempted the project from a full-blown EIS.

Rep. Spencer Igo of Grand Rapids said the governor’s office, MPCA, DNR, city of Cohasset, Itasca County, legislators, and others worked together to ensure the project would be done the right way.

“We worked with the MPCA and everyone was on board,” Igo said. “The MPCA said, ‘We’re not going to handle it on the state level.’ I don’t think we could bring more people together than we did to bring this project together.”

Governor Tim Walz lauded the project when it was announced in June.

“I support and recognize the significance of this project, as does my leadership team,” Walz said in a news release. “Minnesota’s state government commissioners are making the success and expedition of this project a top priority. Huber is an innovative and unique leader in the building products industry, and we are excited they are joining the successful companies that operate and thrive in northeastern Minnesota.”

Brian Hanson, Minnesotans for Jobs chair, says there’s plenty of wood to supply the mill.

“The wood shed is hundreds of miles,” Hanson said. “I’ve been working in forest products for years and the data I’ve seen is the wood is there and the wood basket is continually renewing itself. How many plants did we have 10 years ago that utilized that wood basket?”

The Huber Engineered Woods plant would be the largest development within the state’s wood products industry in decades.

With the 2009 closure of the Ainsworth OSB plant near Cook and the December 2020 closure of Verso in Duluth, loggers don’t have as many outlets for timber in northeastern Minnesota as years ago.

With two of the four coal-fired electrical generating units at Boswell Energy Center already shut down and a third unit scheduled to be shuttered, the wood products plant would be a major economic development boost, Hagy said.

“I’m the mayor of a town of 2,800 and we need the jobs,” Hagy said. “Believe me, no one in our city is against it and there’s no one in Grand Rapids against it. The only people that are against it aren’t from around here.”

Estimates are the plant would use about 400,000 cords of aspen per year.

The plant is a prime example of carbon capture and helping climate change, Mike Forsman, Associated Contract Loggers & Truckers executive director said.

As trees are harvested, carbon locked up within the trees is captured within the wood products manufactured from the trees, he said. New trees then grow and capture more carbon, he said.

“Anytime a tree gets turned into lumber such as for a house, carbon is captured in that lumber.” Forsman said. “That carbon is captured within a house for 80 years. If not this industry, which is capturing carbon, then what industry can you bring into Minnesota?”

Trees that aren’t harvested eventually either die and fall on the ground or burn, Forsman said. Either way, carbon from those trees then goes into the environment, he said.

“If not this business coming into Minnesota with so many positives, then what industry?” Forsman said.

The plant would be sited near where Minnesota Power’s coal-fired electrical generating units began operating more than 60 years ago.

Minnesota Power in 1958 commissioned its Unit 1 at Boswell Energy Center. Unit 2 was commissioned in 1960. Both units were retired in 2018. Unit 3 is set to be retired by 2030. Unit 4 is by 2035 set to be transformed from coal power.

Minnesota Power would provide electricity to the wood products plant, Amy Rutledge, Minnesota Power manager, corporate communications said.

“We look forward to providing safe, reliable and increasingly cleaner energy to this new business, which will bring investment and jobs to the region,” Rutledge said.

Fifty percent of the electricity currently provided by Minnesota Power to its industrial and residential customers comes from renewable sources. By 2050, Minnesota Power plans to provide 100 percent carbon-free power.

That would mean a large portion of the electricity used by the wood plant would come from renewables.

Jobs provided by the wood products plant are important to the surrounding area, Ryan Sistad, Better in our Backyard executive director said.

“When I think of Grand Rapids, I think of the Boswell plant and the jobs needed to neutralize that when it goes down,” Sistad said. “If Boswell closes down and that plant doesn’t go forward, it would be a one-two punch to Grand Rapids.”

Hanson is confident about any air emissions from the project.

“We don’t have an air quality problem in this region and we won’t with this project either,” Hanson said. “And it does have a positive climate effect from sequestration when it’s (carbon in the wood products) stored for hundreds of years.”

The Eveleth-based Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation in June approved a $15 million loan to support construction. The state agency’s mission is to invest resources to foster vibrant growth and economic prosperity in northeastern Minnesota.

“From a state legislator viewpoint and board member of the IRRR, whose mission is economic development, this is exactly the type of project we should be doing,” Rep. Dave Lislegard of Aurora said. “I’m all about creating sustainable jobs, both direct and indirect.”

Igo said it’s hard to believe the opposition to the project, but at the same time, Igo says he can believe it.

“There’s a lot of falsehoods getting preached,” Igo said. “It’s like mudslinging.”

The property on which the plant would be built is zoned heavy industrial, Hagy said.

The Cohasset City Council will decide Tuesday night whether to hold a public hearing on the EAW that night or extend the public hearing date, Hagy said. The meeting is at 7 p.m. at Cohasset City Hall.

Other major northeastern Minnesota economic development projects such as PolyMet Mining Co., Twin Metals Minnesota, and Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 pipeline, have also faced challenges.

“I’m sick and tired of it,” Lislegard said. “And the working people in this region are sick and tired of it.”

Phone messages to a West Fraser official at its Solway plant, a Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy attorney and an email to a Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe environmental program director, were not returned.

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