Plans for a Le Sueur, Minn., biofuel plant that would convert food-processing and animal wastes continue to plod along amid controversy and confusion.
"There are a lot of emotions and uncertainty. It's really a chaotic process right now," said Frank Ebert, who belongs to a citizens group with concerns about a project first introduced in 2009.
Le Sueur Mayor Bob Oberle, a project proponent, suggested that few ventures of this magnitude and scope ever flow easily.
"It's got its detractors, but they've been very respectful," he said. "They have concerns and fears like anyone else has with something new."
At issue is a $30 million plant that would convert chicken manure, potato-processing residues and corn silage into energy. The process used is called anaerobic digestion, a technology that converts wastes into methane, which is then burned to produce electricity.
The process is common in Europe, much less so in the United States. In fact, the logistics and waste varieties proposed for the Le Sueur plant would make it unique to the Midwest and perhaps the nation.
But therein lie the rubs.
A small group calling itself the Le Sueur Area Concerned Citizens maintains that there has been little public discussion or attention paid to how the project would affect environmental and quality of life factors.
The group is concerned about odors, heavy truck traffic, property-value declines and other issues that, they say, haven't received the due-diligence attention they deserve.
"There's not enough in-depth thinking on this," group member Ebert said. "What has really bothered us is we could see they were pushing on an idea that wasn't properly planned."
In 2009 the Minnesota Municipal Power Agency, which includes Le Sueur and 10 other member cities, proposed to build a bioenergy plant on a site in the city's new Energy Park north of Le Sueur.
The agency and its partner, Avant Energy, which develops power plant projects for municipal entities, announced in September that a new site was being considered, an abandoned gravel pit on the south side of town. They said more room is needed to accommodate an expanded plant that would generate eight megawatts of power rather than six.
In December the city opted to annex that land, clearing the way for it to be rezoned.
A few days ago the Le Sueur Planning Commission recommended that the area be rezoned, pending a state environmental assessment, to accommodate plant operations.
Citizen group member Deb McKay said she and husband Bruce by no means fear new technologies -- they live in a solar home -- and weren't against the project at first.
But she said the more they dug into it the more they came to perceive that the venture was proceeding haphazardly.
Ebert, a biochemist and former environmental-standards compliance official for General Mills, is more blunt:
"This is a very pathetic project," he said, listing a litany of red-flag issues concerning effluents, waste-product availabilities and potential processing glitches.
"The public is concerned with the implications of this project -- and with good reason."
Ebert and other citizen-group members contend accountability and transparency have been lacking on the part of the city.
Oberle disagrees. "That would be their opinion. This is all being done according to the process and the law."
Oberle said results of the environmental assessment are expected to come in late February, with a public discussion to follow.
After that a state panel will make its review of the assessment. If it passes muster plant construction could begin in a few months.
Le Sueur City Administrator Rick Almich said the project is being pursued as the city looks to increase the reliability of its energy by reducing transmission costs.
The plant would be designed to provide 40 percent of Le Sueur's power needs, with electricity going directly to the city's power grid.
"Whatever means you can use to reduce your dependence on transmission is in everyone's best interests," he said.
The project is also being driven by a state of Minnesota mandate calling for the state to produce 25 percent of its power via alternate means, such as ag waste and wind turbines, by 2025.
Oberle touts the economic benefits that would be derived, such as the plant's seven well-paying jobs and the uptick in trucking contracts -- in peak season about 30 vehicles daily would freight waste to the facility.
Ebert, however, surmises that the impending Environmental Assessment Worksheet could be the project's death knell.
"I truly believe they're not going to meet the EAW requirements," he said.
Oberle is philosophical about that.
"If it doesn't happen, well, that's the way these things go and we'll move on."
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