Lines drawn in ethanol argument

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

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Even Rob Henderson had to admit the ethanol plant at Malta Bend, Mo., was an impressive sight, at least on its face.

"It was clean. The smell's not a real big issue," Henderson said after a trip May 16 to the 40-million-gallon-per-year ethanol production facility in Malta Bend owned by Mid-Missouri Energy. Henderson, a member of the Scott City Council, has joined with rural Scott City resident Monty Keesee to raise serious concerns about the health and environmental effects of ethanol production.

Outside the small town of Malta Bend, Mo. the Mid Missouri ethanol plant is surrounded by fields full of the corn that is used to create fuel ethanol. The plant takes about 20 percent of the 90 million bushels of corn grown in the surrounding area.

After returning from Malta Bend he still isn't convinced that ethanol production would be good for the area, especially because the trip was set up by a group looking to invest in a 50-million-gallon-per-year ethanol plant on Nash Road.

The trip has become the centerpiece of the case being made by local government and economic development officials wishing to attract ethanol production to the area between Scott City and Cape Girardeau, where many groups are exploring plant installations. At the same time, the opposition to the plants, based mainly in Scott City, is turning to older, larger plants to make its argument against local ethanol production.

During the Malta Bend tour, the plant management brought in a schoolteacher, farmers and others living in or around the community of 239 people to talk to visitors about the positive effects ethanol production has had on the once-depressed area.

Scott County Presiding Commissioner Jamie Burger said "without a doubt" the picture of ethanol production presented during the tour would persuade those with reservations about the industry that ethanol production is clean and good for local economies.

Henderson wasn't persuaded, though. He looked at the trip as one set up by those who stand to profit -- either in tax base or personal finances -- from local ethanol production. The plant, he said, is smaller than many looking to locate in Southeast Missouri, including the 129-million-gallon-per-year plant proposed by Bootheel Agri-Energy for construction in Sikeston.

'I almost threw up'

Over the past weekend Keesee and Henderson looked at three plants in Illinois -- at Decatur, Pekin and Peoria -- all larger and older than the Malta Bend plant. Their findings reinforced their belief that ethanol plants aren't always "good neighbors," a term used often by ethanol's local supporters.

"When we went to the Decatur plant, I almost threw up," Henderson said of the smell emitted by the 100-million-gallon-per-year-plus Archer Daniels Midland plant in the company's hometown. The Illinois plants -- some decades old -- were surrounded by blighted areas and emitted a strong stench, Keesee and Henderson said.

What they haven't found is documented proof that ethanol production poses a health threat to humans. Neither can ethanol's local supporters prove that ethanol production poses no health risk.

The opposition has compiled anecdotal evidence -- mainly testimony from people living near ethanol plants about noxious smells and unclean air -- and incidents where the industry violated federal clean air standards (a plant in Craig, Mo., violated Clean Air Act provisions in 2005).

Keesee, who develops subdivisions in Scott City, said he wants economic development to come to Scott City, but not at the cost of human health and the environment. If someone can prove to him that ethanol is a clean industry, he'll welcome the plants to the area, he said.

Supporters also rely on anecdotal evidence, like the testimony of Malta Bend residents and studies showing the positive economic impact of ethanol production.

The Southeast Missourian was unable to find studies on the health effects on residents living near ethanol production facilities, but one recent high-profile study by Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson contends ethanol's use in vehicles could create even more respiratory problems and cancers in Americans than gasoline. That study has been refuted by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a not-for-profit environmental advocacy group, and others.

Ethanol's economic impact has been studied. A recent study by the Missouri Department of Economic Development found the biofuels industry will provide $165 million in state revenue over the next 10 years and add $4.9 billion in new personal income to Missouri residents over the same period.

The economic benefits of ethanol production in Southeast Missouri haven't been studied, said Mitch Robinson, director of the Cape Girardeau Area Magnet industrial recruiting association. But Burger said a 50-million-gallon-per-year plant like the one proposed by First Missouri Energy will add $19.8 million to the county's assessed valuation and provide $335,000 to the Scott City School District if half the plant's property taxes are abated.

Joel Evans, Scott County's chief economic development officer, said the county is exploring options for tax abatement, possibly through the creation of an enhanced enterprise zone, but he didn't want to discuss details of negotiations with the ethanol producers.

The ethanol issue has the most impact for Scott City because several plants have been proposed in the Nash Road and Southeast Missouri Port Authority area. Some local residents like Keesee, Henderson and city council member LeAnn Wilthong are vocal about their concerns. Others are just as vocal in their support for ethanol and its perceived economic benefits.

"I ... and my stepfather have been doing a lot of research into this subject, and I have found many other studies that tell us that yes, although these chemical emitted in the air can be harmful in large doses it's not likely to take out an entire town and kill them all as Mr. Keesee would like for us to believe," Scott City resident Nicole Borders wrote in an e-mail to the Southeast Missourian.

Cries of 'wolf'

Borders and her stepfather Bill Baron appeared Monday night before the Scott City Council in support of ethanol production, the same night Keesee returned to the council to discuss his trip to Illinois.

"Until I find some rock-solid evidence that these plants are proven dangerous, Mr. Keesee's cries of 'wolf' will continue to fall on deaf ears," Borders said.

Scott City Mayor Tim Porch said Monday's meeting turned into a shouting match between Keesee and himself, illustrating how contentious the battle over ethanol has become. Porch adamantly supports bringing ethanol production into the area, though most city council members haven't voiced their opinions in open meetings. "The county and the city are not going to take a stand against industry," Porch said.

Porch, Burger, Evans and other ethanol supporters say federal and state emissions guidelines are in place to make sure that industries like ethanol don't compromise human and environmental health, and they trust those regulations.

Keesee and his allies say ethanol production's health effects are unknown because of the lack of studies. "We really don't know," Keesee said.

They also point to relaxed regulations taking effect July 2 that will allow ethanol plants more than twice the amount of emissions they are currently allowed as a "minor" pollution source as classified by the EPA and Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

However, DNR's air quality program director Kyra Moore said one factor in determining how many emissions plants are allowed to put out is the concentration of industry in a given area.

Keesee will no longer be able to make his case before the city council. Porch said the council will hear no more talk about the ethanol issue unless council members request it or an expert is slated to make a presentation to the council.

"If the council has questions for somebody qualified to answer, we'll address those issues," Porch said. "But we're not a regulatory commission, and the concerns have been heard."

Keesee says dozens if not hundreds of people in Scott City agree with him. He'll seek a new forum for airing the cases for and against ethanol, he said, by setting up a town-hall meeting in Scott City in the near future.

335-6611, extension 182

Rural Scott City resident Monty Keesee took a trip last weekend to view three ethanol plants in Illinois at Decatur, Peoria and Pekin, and supplied a video to the Southeast Missourian.

Air emission standards

Most ethanol plants in Missouri -- including the only one in Southeast Missouri with an air emissions permit, Bootheel Agri-Energy LLC in Sikeston -- must meet the same standards for air emissions. EPA emission limits will increase July 2 but will not apply to plants that already have permits.

Potential emissions from Bootheel Agri-Energy's plant vs. the current standards (tons per year)

Particulate matter: 50.09, up to 100

Sulfur oxides: 45.65, up to 100

Nitrogen oxides: 97.13, up to 100

Volatile organic compounds: 98.66, up to 100

Carbon monoxide: 95.52, up to 100

Hazardous air pollutants: 16.61, up to 10 of

individual HAPs and 25 total

View a copy of Bootheel Agri-Energy LLC's air pollution permit supplied by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources

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