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Biomass debate rages at ordinance hearing


April 07, 2010
Twenty-three people spoke at a public hearing last Tuesday night regarding a possible county ordinance that would require the proposed woody biomass-to-electricity plant near Milltown to be licensed. Twenty-two of those discussed why the plant would be bad for the community, while just one — the attorney for the plant's developer — opposed the ordinance and talked about the facility's merits.

Larry Bye, president of the Crawford County Board of Commissioners, began the hearing, held within the board's regular monthly meeting at the judicial complex in English, by noting a decision wouldn't be made that evening, as Barnes & Thornburgh LLP, the Indianapolis law firm hired by the county to review the proposed ordinance, hadn't finished its work.

"We want this hearing to be civil, productive. We're not going to allow any outbursts from the crowd," he said, adding comments would be limited to three to five minutes.

Those who filled the courtroom remained polite throughout the evening, only briefly breaking into applause a couple of times, but speakers rarely were held within the time limit.

Mike Wukmer, the attorney with Ice Miller LLP — the Indianapolis law firm representing Forrest Lucas, his daughter, Tammy Vanlaningham, who lives near the biomass plant site, and Lucas Oil — who presented the ordinance to commissioners in February, opened the public comments by reviewing what is being proposed.

The ordinance under consideration would require facilities that, among other things, generate use of or discharge more than 100,000 gallons of water or wastewater within a 24-hour period or use the combustion of wood, wood products, vegetative material or biomass materials to generate electricity to be licensed.

Applicants would have to identify a certain percentage of the owners and their principal addresses, provide a detailed description of the project and how the use of the water and the combustion would affect county residents, pay an application fee to cover administrative costs incurred by the county and provide a series of independent studies showing the impact on things like the county's tourism industry and property owners downstream from the business.

Wukmer said the commissioners actually are being asked to consider two ordinances: one to require the license and another to establish a procedure for them to decide if a business is in the best interest of the county.

"We think you have the power, authority and the duty to act on behalf of the citizens that elected you. We request that you do that," Wukmer said.

He added that his firm has been in contact with Barnes & Thornburg and is willing to assist in its review of the proposed ordinances.

Cara Beth Jones, co-chair of the Concerned Citizens of Crawford County, a grassroots organization formed soon after Liberty Green Renewables Indiana LLC announced plans to build the 28-megawatt biomass plant in late December 2008, offered numbers — 75,000 doctors nationwide are against biomass facilities — and visual evidence — boxes of research and permit materials, as well as a map produced by LGRI that shows the results of a computer model study of the air disbursement of the plant's emissions — to make her case.

"All this stuff will rain down on us," she said, noting that once on the ground, it will wash into the nearby Blue River.

Jones, who lives west of the plant site, added she also is worried that LGRI, based on information it submitted to the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, may construct an on-site landfill for up to 50 tons of "toxic ash" the plant may generate.

She said that she doesn't believe it's right that LGRI received state tax dollars and applied for a $4.9 million grant, which would require a $1.8 million local match, money, she added, that the county doesn't have.

Jones implored the commissioners to act, saying it's their responsibility to protect the citizens. She added that there is much to learn from history's mistakes, and they should do their part to ensure mistakes aren't made now.

"Churchill said, 'If not us, who? And, if not now, when?'" she said. "That meant, who's going to protect us but ourselves, and when are we going to do it? After it's too late? No, we can't wait. It's us, and it's now."

Mark Woods, the other co-chair of the Concerned Citizens, said the group continually has been frustrated by LGRI's resistance to conducting testing — such as an actual on-site air disbursement study and a dye tracing test to determine if contaminants would get into the underground water table — that the Concerned Citizens believe is necessary to prove the plant would be environmentally safe.

Woods, of Milltown, also noted that, because of the recent addition of an on-site grinder in LGRI's plans, a noise limit should be included in the ordinance. He added that, because of fuel source changes by LGRI, the ordinance should stipulate that only clean wood can be used.

Paul Walerczack and Rodney and Linda Jenkins, neighbors who live next to the plant site, asked the commissioners to put themselves in their place. The Jenkinses put their house up for sale last summer because of the plant, but there's been no serious inquiries, and Walerczack, who has a daughter with asthma, said he's afraid his family also will have to move.

Lyn Humphries, of English, said biomass plants produce more carbon dioxide than coal plants and, therefore, would be devastating to plant life, including trees, which, in turn, would harm future generations.

"Let us be the people who did not sell our forest," she said. "Let us be the people who said no."

It wasn't only locals who addressed the commissioners. One woman, who lives in downtown Indianapolis but plans to retire in Crawford County, echoed Jones' plea to learn from the mistakes of the past. The woman said she lives "in the fallout of the Indianapolis coke plant."

"It took three decades of concerted effort (to close the plant), and we're still dealing with the toxic dump that will continue to affect multiple neighborhoods for many decades and many generations," she said.

"I want to remind Crawford County residents the unique circumstances that you have and the unique position you're in. You live in one of the cleanest counties in the nation," she said. "That's what attracted my husband and I to plan to retire here. That's why we now own two pieces of property here and are now beginning to build a home."

The string of those speaking against the plant was finally interrupted when Cliff Ashburner, an attorney with Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs LLP representing LGRI, reminded the commissioners about the reason for the hearing.

"The purpose of the meeting is to talk about the ordinance itself, not the merits of this specific biomass plant," he said.

Speaking to the ordinance, Ashburner, whose ironic name drew a laugh from the audience, said he believes "it will be found illegal in Indiana courts."

"The ordinance does not contain any standard by which a license or permit can be issued. That is a fundamental problem, and it is different from any other administrative regulation that you may find," he said. "Most administrative regulations have a bar that is set. There are bars that are set for air quality, water quality, solid waste disposal."

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management, in contrast, does have standards that must be met, and "LGR is meeting all of those," Ashburner said.

By not having such standards, the ordinance, he said, is unconstitutional since it doesn't guarantee due process.

He added it is his opinion the ordinance also is faulty because it doesn't allow applicants to appeal the decision made by the board of commissioners and it attempts to take powers specifically granted to IDEM. In the areas not in IDEM's jurisdiction, the county, Ashburner said, hasn't followed Indiana Code requirements in setting up air quality or zoning regulations. He told the commissioners those things are important to consider be-cause they could adversely affect some other business' plans to come to the county in the future.

"So, I ask you to consider the chilling effect that passing this ordinance could have on future businesses after LGR," he said.

Saying nobody else had said anything about the benefits of the plant, Ashburner noted it will provide substantial tax revenue and an annual payroll of about $1.25 million with an average salary of $50,000.

"I would ask that you consider that, you consider the entire county, you consider the role that IDEM plays in the protections it gives you and that you take no action on the ordinance," he said.

Those who followed Ashburner picked right back up in opposing the plant. Glenn Crecelius, who lives west of the site, said his family has been in the county for 200 years and he would like for it to be there another 200. Kim Beswick, a county resident originally from Bulleit County, Ky., talked about growing up near toxic materials and now having auto-immune deficiencies and how her skin would fall off when she was a child.

A couple of people from Scottsburg who are fighting LGRI's plans to build a plant there offered encouragement, and Zac Elliott of the Citizens Action Coalition, which has filed suit against LGRI regarding the Scottsburg plant, urged the commissioners to include in the ordinance the prohibition of tires and construction debris as fuel sources.

Andy Mahler, of Paoli, told the commissioners that IDEM won't protect the county and, instead, it's their job, and Jeanie Melton, who lives on the Harrison County side of Milltown and is a member of the Milltown Town Council, urged the commissioners to read the letters submitted to IDEM regarding the plant that are available at the Crawford County Public Library in English.

Echoing Mahler, Melton noted that an IDEM official told her at an earlier public meeting "that the only thing that can stop this would be an action from the local government. They told us that very clearly that evening. IDEM has nothing within their powers to stop it. They are just a permitting agency. Only the local government can take a position."

Although in attendance, neither Larry Ott of LGRI nor Forrest Lucas, who hired Ice Miller to present the ordinance, spoke during the approximately two-hour hearing.

The public hearing will reconvene during the commissioners' April 29 meeting. The regular meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m., with the hearing at 7:30.

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