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Larry Ott, standing, a partner with Liberty Green Renewables LLC, which has proposed building a biomass-to-electricity plant northwest of Milltown, and Mark Woods, far right, co-chair of a group opposed to the plant, discuss a point during Thursday's Crawford County Board of Commissioners' meeting. (Photos by Chris Adams)

Commissioners hear biomass debate

March 04, 2009
People and emotion packed the courtroom at the Crawford County Judicial Complex in English Thursday night, as residents concerned about a proposed biomass power plant north of Milltown urged county commissioners to seek more information, if not outright oppose it.

Many people in attendance hadn't been convinced by previous answers from developer Liberty Green Renewables LLC that the 28-megawatt woody biomass-to-electricity plant would be good for the area, and comments given at the meeting suggested they still haven't.

Mark Woods, co-chair of the Concerned Citizens of Crawford County group that opposes a proposed biomass plant, makes a point during the Crawford County Commission-ers' meeting Thursday.
The common theme among those who addressed the commissioners was that the jobs and increase in county tax revenue wouldn't offset potential risks to the region's health, environment, property values and tourism industry.

"Clean air equals longer lives," said Linda Jenkins, who lives near the proposed site and is a cancer survivor and whose husband, Rodney, has suffered a heart attack. "If you can't breathe, nothing else matters."

Milltown resident Tom Doddridge asked LGR to pay for a delegation of citizens to visit a biomass plant of their choosing to determine the impact it has had on its community. Turning to the three commissioners, he urged them to do as much research as possible.

"Do your homework, ask probing questions, require complete disclosure from LGR and understand how this project will change the Milltown area forever before you formally support this project or grant tax abatements to Liberty Green Renewables," he said.

The commissioners cannot keep the plant from being built, since the county has no zoning laws, and can only offer a letter of support or non-support. However, the county council can deny granting a property tax abatement, but LGR hasn't requested one yet.

Before many in the crowd — the largest to attend a commissioners' meeting since the Crawford County Judicial Complex at English opened in 2004, causing many to park along the streets — voiced their concerns about the plant, LGR officials gave a brief presentation.

The presentation was almost identical to the one given at last month's Milltown Town Council meeting, but, unlike at that meeting, LGR distributed copies of the presentation and answers to a list of frequently asked questions.

Terry Naulty, joined by fellow LGR partner Larry Ott, both of Harrison County, reiterated earlier statements that the biomass plant, which would occupy 30 of 100 acres the company bought, with the boiler and turbine buildings taking up just three of those acres, would be considered carbon neutral by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Kyoto Protocol.

Naulty noted, however, the facility, which would attain its fuel from sawmills, furniture and cabinet manufacturers, and other wood-related industries, would release emissions into the air and water.

According to the handout, air emissions would include sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds, but the levels would be low enough for the Indiana Department of Environment alManagement to classify the plant as a "minor source" of pollution.

Addressing concerns about highly toxic dioxin emissions, Naulty said the plant would produce 0.005 ounce per year, or six-sixteenths the weight of a penny, about the same amount as residential wood stoves.

He added that while the facility would create ash waste, the EPA classifies the type of facility as an industrial-commercial-institutional steam generator, not an incinerator, to which Mark Woods, co-chair of the Concerned Citizens of Crawford County opposition group, later questioned.

"It burns things and leaves things," he said.

Woods also challenged Naulty's claims that the amount of dioxin emissions would be safe, saying that one part per billion of dioxin is toxic. He added that Milltown Elementary School is less than one mile from the site of the proposed plant.

Naulty said the plant would intake 480,000 gallons of water per day — officials are still working to secure that amount — and despite reusing the water as many times as possible, would still discharge 120 gallons per minute (172,800 gallons every 24 hours). Discharge site options include Blue River, Whiskey Run Creek and sinkholes, he said to a chorus of boos from the crowd.

Air and water permit applications are expected to be submitted to IDEM within the month, with engineering and geotechnical work to be done this summer. LGR already has development funding in place through the partners, who also include Jack Farley and Stephen Naeve of Houston, and Macquarie, the Australian financial firm that purchased the northern Indiana toll road.

LGR then hopes to secure the construction financing so it can begin building the $80 million to $100 million plant in May 2010 with a planned opening in late 2011. The facility is expected to create 60 to 65 full-time jobs during its 30-year life expectancy.

"We believe that all the positions can be filled from Crawford County," Naulty said.

LGR wrote a letter published in this newspaper last month and appeared at the Milltown Town Council meeting to answer questions, and hoped to answer more at Thursday's commissioners' meeting.

"We're not having ash ponds," Naulty said, referring to worries that ash from the wood would seep into the ground and pollute the water table.

Instead, Naulty said the company would haul it off-site, with some being used in concrete production and the rest going to a landfill. The ash would be enclosed while at the plant, from first being created to being stored to being transferred to covered trucks.

However, according to the LGR handout, engineering would be done to evaluate the potential for an on-site landfill.

Woods, who began the long line of resident responses to the presentation, said as a small business owner in Milltown (he and his wife, Debbie, own Blue River Café), he was excited about the plant at first but became concerned after doing research.

He noted that between 1995 and 2005, 300 proposed plants were defeated. The nearby town, let alone the houses within walking distance of the plant site, combined with the area's karst topography, make it a bad location for such a facility, Woods said.

Woods, along with several others, spoke about the 30-day supply of wood chips to be kept on the site that Naulty earlier in the meeting said at times could smell like mulch in a flower bed but would be the only odor from the plant. The residents expressed concern about the size of the exposed pile, which they calculated to be that of two football fields 16 feet deep, and possible toxic formaldehyde developed through fermentation.

Residents urged LGR to consider locating the plant at the county's industrial park north of Interstate 64 off of S.R. 66 near Leavenworth. Although the site doesn't have easy access to electrical transmission lines like the Milltown site, which is located next to a Duke Energy substation, and construction of such lines would be expensive (LGR said they can cost up to $1 million per mile), it would be a safer location since it is just outside of the karst topography and wouldn't negatively affect property values.

"It's the site that has us worried," Woods said of the Milltown location.

Paul Walerczack, who lives across the road from the proposed site, said he is worried about the health impacts of the air emissions on his five children and, in particular, his 6-year-old daughter, Anna, an asthmatic who must use an inhaler and receive a shot weekly.

"Anna's an awesome little girl," he said while holding up her photo.

Walerczack said her doctor told him the biomass plant wouldn't make Anna's asthma attacks more frequent, but it would have an effect over time and would require more medication.

"The question becomes how different will the air be," he said, answering enough that he doesn't want his family or anyone else breathing it.

Cara Jones, who lives northwest of Milltown and is the other co-chair of the Concerned Citizens of Crawford County, gave the commissioners a petition signed by about 500 people in opposition of the plant and a folder full of materials questioning the benefits of such a facility.

She said if contaminants were to make it into the area's sinkholes, the affected water could make its way all the way to Leavenworth, where several water companies have wells. Jones said if LGR has to discharge water after so many times through the cycle, then, in her opinion, it can't be good to drink.

"You know, if a biomass plant can't reuse it, I can't wait to drink it" and swim in it, she said.

Lyn Humphries of English said she is also worried about wind disturbance of the wood chips and possible spontaneous combustion of dust, while Patricia Lahue, who lives north of the site, said she doesn't care about the career goals of LGR officials.

"Mr. Naulty, my husband and I couldn't care less about your ambitions to be a large player (in the energy field), but we do care about clean water," she said.

Following comments from other residents concerned about the proposed facility, Doug Wagner of IDEM's air permits branch explained the permit application process.

He said he couldn't give any specifics on the LGR plant, since no application has been submitted, but explained IDEM looks at technical calculations to determine if a plant's emissions would fall within the state's guidelines, which mirror those of the federal government.

Wagner said notice will be given online when an application is submitted and the public may request a copy. During a 30-day public notice process, residents would be able to submit comments and ask for a public hearing, he said.

If a plant is built, it would be subject to inspections at least once a year, he said.

While there is no plant like this in Indiana, there are similar technologies being used, so IDEM is familiar with the process, Wagner said.

He invited anyone with concerns to call him at 1-800-451-6027, ext. 32629.

Given an opportunity to respond by the commissioners, Ott began by holding up a bag of wood chips.

"I'll just point out this is wood. This is not some kind of toxic substance," he said.

Ott quipped that from what he heard during the meeting, by the time LGR is done, the "entire county will be glowing." That, however, isn't the case, he said, explaining the company will have to follow the law and if it doesn't meet the permit requirements, it won't build a plant.

"We are going to produce renewable energy" using wood chips and green sawdust, Ott said.

He said he was perplexed by the lack of concern for new jobs expressed by many in the audience.

"I guess one of the things that I've heard here tonight that confounds me more than anything else is jobs don't matter," he said.

"Even worse than that, the inference was made here tonight that people in Crawford County aren't smart enough to hold a job at this plant," he said, pointing to questions about whether the positions would be filled with local people.

Ott also said that worries the company would leave after a short time, or even during construction, are baseless. LGR, he said, never would turn a shovel of dirt unless it had a 15-to-20-year agreement to sell the renewable energy it would produce to a local utility. He said the company currently has a letter-of-intent with a utility.

Answering concerns about building on karst topography, Ott said geological solutions exist to make that possible.

"It would be pretty asinine to build a $90 million facility and see it tip over sideways," he said.

Ott, pointing out that everything in life comes down to choice, said, "I just about bet you every person (at the meeting) drove a car (which emits pollution) here tonight."

Crawford County Economic Development Director Don DuBois asked Naulty and Ott if chemicals would be added to the water that would be discharged. Naulty said residual chlorine would be added to the water, which would be heated and cooled through several cycles until it must be discharged, to keep algae low.

Asked by Linda Jenkins if he would want the plant next to his home and if he can understand the concerns of her and the other residents, Ott replied that wherever it is built, it is going to near somebody's home.

Larry Bye, president of the board of commissioners, said he will meet with an independent environmental engineering firm in Louisville this week to seek unfiltered information. He also pledged to visit a similar plant.

"I will go to a biomass plant, even if I have to do it at my own expense," he said.

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