A year after Milton ethanol report, some frustrated by delay

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Stacy Vogel
Sunday, June 28, 2009
— If Tom Chesmore has learned anything in his three years in politics, it’s this: Things move slowly in government.

So the Milton mayor has come to accept that the state enforcement action involving United Ethanol will take time to reach a resolution.

“It really is frustrating that we can’t move faster, but everything has to be in order,” he said.

The Department of Natural Resources still is getting its case in order one year after issuing a scathing inspection report of United Ethanol, 1250 Chicago St., Milton.

That report found more than 170 alleged permit violations out of 370 permit items at the plant, including problems with record keeping, equipment and emissions. It named the plant a “high-priority violation,” starting what the DNR calls an enforcement action that likely will lead to a referral to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, DNR officials say.

The enforcement action continues today, and DNR officials declined to estimate when it will be complete.

Pam Kober, environmental enforcement specialist, understands it’s frustrating for the community, but the DNR has to study the alleged violations before taking action, she said.

“The data is very complicated and very time consuming to go through and process,” she said. “We have to ensure that if we are alleging violation, we have enough information to move forward.”

That’s not to say that nothing has happened in the past year. DNR and plant officials met for a four-hour enforcement conference in September to discuss the alleged violations. Both sides said they were satisfied with the conference, and Brian Barbieur, DNR air management engineer, told the plant it was on its way to 100 percent compliance.

The plant installed a larger, $2 million regenerative thermal oxidizer in December. Officials said the new equipment would reduce noise, odor and emissions.

February testing, submitted in April, found the new equipment operating within limits. But the testing also found the plant over the limit for acetaldehyde in its fermentation scrubber and vent gas scrubber and volatile organic compounds in its vent gas scrubber.

The plant has diagnosed and fixed the problems, spokeswoman Dori Lichty wrote in an e-mail to The Janesville Gazette.

Since the installation of the oxidizer, the plant has received no noise complaints and fewer odor complaints, she wrote.

“We still receive an occasional odor complaint from a close neighbor, and United Ethanol investigates each complaint just as we’ve always done,” she wrote.

But neighbors said the plant still smells.

Peggy Peterson lives about half a mile from the plant. The smell hasn’t gotten any better since the new equipment was installed, but she got so tired of calling the DNR and plant about it that she stopped calling for a while, she said.

“I’m really disgruntled about having to call them in the first place because, you know, that shouldn’t be our job,” she said. “You get where you get sick and tired of them.”

On May 18, Barbieur responded to two calls from neighbors and found the odor objectionable at one of the sites, he said. He was there for half an hour and got a headache and upset stomach from the smell, he said.

He didn’t declare the odor objectionable at the other property because he only smelled it for six to 10 minutes out of half an hour.

Barbieur doesn’t know why the plant smelled bad that day, but he will be including the violation in a referral package to the Department of Justice, he said.

The fact that the plant failed emission tests in 2007 and 2008 practically guarantees the DNR will refer the case to the Department of Justice for possible civil charges, Barbieur said.

According to Wisconsin air quality statutes, the Department of Justice could fine the plant between $10,000 and $25,000 per day for each violation.

The DNR secretary, Matt Frank, makes the ultimate decision about whether to refer the plant to the Department of Justice, Kober said.

In the meantime, communication with the plant has improved in the last year, she said. She believes the plant is making an effort to come into compliance, though there are some outstanding issues.

Lichty also said communication has improved.

“Management is growing every day in their communication efforts with the DNR and city of Milton, and we believe all the issues in that June report have been addressed,” she wrote.

United Ethanol timeline

-- February 2005: The Milton City Council approves a developer’s agreement with United Cooperative, parent company of United Ethanol, in closed session after several closed-session discussions.

-- May 2005: Citizens for Responsible Development sue the city, claiming it violated ordinance by approving the ethanol plant. The group eventually claims the city violated the state’s open meeting law.

-- September 2005: Ground is broken for the $60 million plant.

-- March 2007: A state appeals court finds the Milton City Council violated the open meetings law when it met in closed session to discuss the plant and approve a developer’s agreement.

The plant also begins making ethanol that month. Neighbors start complaining about noise, odor and emissions at the plant soon after.

-- June 2008: The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources releases a report naming the plant a “high-priority violation” and listing 170 alleged permit violations, including record-keeping, equipment and emissions problems.

-- September 2008: United Ethanol and the DNR meet for an enforcement conference to discuss the alleged violations. Brian Barbieur, DNR air management engineer, tells the plant it’s on its way to 100 percent compliance.

-- December 2008: United Ethanol installs a new regenerative thermal oxidizer. The plant says the $2 million equipment should decrease noise, odor and emission problems.

-- April 2009: United Ethanol submits results from required emissions tests done in February. The tests find the plant’s new oxidizer is running within limits, but the plant is over the limit for acetaldehyde and volatile organic compounds. The plant says it has fixed the problems.

Last updated: 10:34 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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