Ethanol plant’s complaining neighbors told ‘They’re in compliance’ doesn’t regulate odors ordinance

Neighbors of the Central Minnesota Ethanol Cooperative plant north of Little Falls were given little satisfaction as they complained, at a public meeting with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, about the odor emitted by the plant.

The meeting, held Thursday evening at the courthouse, offered one additional comment period for the public before the MPCA decides whether to allow an air emission permit amendment to the ethanol-producing facility.

The major changes associated with the proposed permit amendment include an increase in the allowed annual ethanol production limit from 20 million gallons to 22 million gallons, an increase in the process throughput limit for corn from 210,000 to 238,000 tons per year and an increase in certain emission limits.

On hand at the meeting was plant General Manager Robyn Wells who explained the ethanol board’s wish to expand production at the plant. Addressing complaints about noise from the plant, she told of measures that had been taken for reducing it. They included the construction of a sound barrier and adjustments to the speed of a combustion fan. She concluded by saying revenue from the plant had “put millions back into the community.”

Craig Thorstenson, staff engineer for the MPCA, next presented the requirements for the permit amendment. He explained, the emissions of pollutants from the plant will still have to remain under 100 tons per year, just as they presently are. Addressing the odor question, he said, “The MPCA doesn’t have any specific rules for odors. State rules regulate air pollutants.”

Another question raised was whether, in another year, “we’ll be back here when they ask for another increase in production.” The resident was told, “Yes, they can go higher if they want to. But, if they wanted to get a permit to go above the 100 tons of emissions, all kinds of new rules would kick in. Probably additional air pollution controls would be required.”

MPCA regional specialist David Crowell told of the noise survey he conducted by the plant. “When traffic is light, you can hear noise from the plant,” he said. “But, they’re in compliance. The decibel level is around 55. Normal conversation is around 70 decibels.”

One resident from the plant’s neighborhood countered the remark by saying, “Just because it’s in compliance doesn’t mean it doesn’t bother the neighbors.” Crowell responded, saying, “That’s true but I have no authority to make them conduct a change.”

When asked why the MPCA was looking at allowing the plant to increase its emissions, Crowell answered, “They’re allowed to go higher by our rules.”

Pat Lutswick was one resident who spoke out against the odors from the plant. “We were told from the beginning that they would remedy the odor problem when they had a profit,” she said. “CMEC and its investors owe that to us. We were here first. It’s going from an intolerable situation to even worse.”

Many in attendance agreed with her, adding that, while they supported ethanol, they often had to keep their windows closed and curtail their outside activities because of the odor in their neighborhood.

Crowell emphasized once again that MPCA does not regulate odors. “And, we don’t believe the smell is coming from pollutants,” he added. “We’d take action if the plant was not in compliance with emission regulations, but, they are.”

One resident asked if there was any known process for removing the odor coming from the plant. Answering the question was Todd Potas of the Environmental Resource Group. “Yes, there are some odor reductions in place at some facilities,” he said. “A fermentation scrubber can do it. The odor here is in the steam. To remove it completely, you would have to convert it back to water and that’s very expensive. These are small facilities. To do this process would probably seriously disrupt the economics of these small plants.”

A few people in attendance spoke in favor of the plant’s expansion and the proposed permit amendment. Two were farmers/investors. “I see the plant as an extension of my farm,” said Steve Anderson. “There’s a lot worse things in this country (than the odor),” added Marv Miller. “I find cigarette odors offensive. And, we farmer don’t like to see houses going up on our prime farm land. You can get used to the odors, just as we get used to the odors on the farm. I’m for the plant’s expansion.”

CMEC board member Bill Blaine tried to diminish the anger still expressed by some residents. “We never said there wouldn’t be a smell,” he said. “We’re trying everything that’s humanly possible. But, sometimes you have to give up something to gain something. Look at Hennepin Paper, the sewage plant and Larson Boats—they all gave off odors and everyone put up with them. Think of it—95 percent of our corn comes from within a 50-mile radius of the plant.”

Most of the approximately 35 attendees at the meeting remained unconvinced of Blaine’s comments. “You’ve got people who are bitter here,” concluded one. “We know farmers are not getting enough for their products. But, I don’t know if this plant is doing enough to mend the situation here. And, now they want to expand!”

With the comments ending, MPCA Supervisor Douglas Hall concluded the meeting, saying, “We appreciate your comments. We’ll continue to take comments until October 9. We’ll then consider all the comments and then decide whether to issue the amendment or not.”

Anyone wishing to send a comment on the issue may mail it to Craig Thorstenson, MPCA, North/South Major Facilities, 520 Lafayette Road North, St. Paul, MN, 55155. One may also give verbal comments by calling 1-800-657-3864.

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