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Some optimistic, others skeptical about ethanol plant’s plan

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Stacy Vogel
October 21, 2009
— Peggy Peterson, a neighbor of United Ethanol, had one response after hearing the plant’s “Odor Response Action Plan.”

“Talk is cheap,” she said.


But the plant is serious about improving community relations, said Dori Lichty, a United Ethanol spokeswoman.


“There wasn’t the collaboration between the city and the businesses and the neighbors that we wanted to see, so we sat back and said, ‘OK, we need to do something different here,’” she said.


The plant presented a five-step plan to the Milton Plan Commission last week after a meeting between plant and city officials. It calls for hiring outside consultants to analyze odor complaints, test results and plant procedures and maintenance, and gives deadlines for reporting results to the commission.


It also calls for better communication between the plant, city and neighbors. The plant will copy the city on all correspondence with the state, including test results and odor complaints, and quickly relay odor-related information to neighbors through e-mail or a Web site, the plan says.


The plan comes after more than two years of complaints from neighbors about plant odors and emissions. City council members and Mayor Tom Chesmore have taken up the neighbors’ cause.


Last month, the plan commission held a public hearing to consider revoking the plant’s conditional-use permit, and some city officials were surprised to learn that the plant doesn’t have a conditional-use permit covering most of its operations.


But the city still could find the plant in violation of its developer’s agreement or municipal ordinance if it believes the plant is causing offensive odor, City Attorney Mark Schroeder said.


Chesmore believes the city’s threat of litigation is what convinced the plant to take action.


“I think United Ethanol is realizing the city is dead serious about this,” he said.


Chesmore, Schroeder and City Administrator Todd Schmidt met with plant officials Oct. 9 at the plant’s request to discuss a draft plan. Many pieces of the final plan came from Schmidt, Chesmore said.


“Todd was pretty forthright with them,” Chesmore said. “He told them flat out, ‘This is the way you should be doing it; this is what we want.’”


At the plan commission’s request, the plant also agreed to update the commission every month and share a list of qualifications it’s looking for in consultants.


One purpose of the plan is to educate neighbors about plant operations, especially emissions, Lichty said.


“United Ethanol feels that it’s important that these people have the correct information,” she said. “They’re reading so much on the Internet.”


But the plant also wants to see if it can improve operations, she said. It will seriously consider any suggestions from consultants.


Peterson said she’ll believe that when she sees it.


“Frankly, they’re not going to do anything if it’s going to have anything to do with their production,” she said. “If they do, I’m not going to break my arm patting them on the back, because they should have been doing this to begin with.”


Chesmore said he’s optimistic about the plan but is waiting to see more.


“When they start hitting their timelines that they put out there, I’ll probably be more optimistic,” he said.


Plan summary

Here’s a summary of United Ethanol’s “Odor Response Action Plan.”


-- Hire a consultant to analyze the plant’s odor-complaint log. The consultant will look for possible factors such as wind and operating conditions that could be affecting complaints. The plant will submit a report of the consultant’s findings to the Milton Plan Commission within 90 days.


-- Hire a consultant to examine the maintenance, procedures and schedules of the plant’s grain dryer. The plant believes the dryer “to be the most likely primary source of odors during our production process.” The plant will submit a written report to the plan commission within 90 days.


-- Hire a consultant to review, analyze and comment on results of recently completed emissions tests. The plant is waiting for results of the tests from an independent testing lab certified by the state. The plant will submit the analysis to the plan commission within 45 days of receiving the results from the lab.


-- Retain “a nationally recognized expert to evaluate the odor concerns.” The expert will review results from the consultants, study the plant and its processes, and interview or survey residents, city officials, plant personnel and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources staff. The plant will give the plan commission an anticipated schedule for the study within 60 days.


-- Increase communication with the city and neighbors by copying the city on all correspondence with the DNR, responding promptly to all inquiries, offering plant tours to city officials and quickly relaying odor-related information to neighbors through a Web site or e-mail.


The plant also agreed to update the plan commission monthly and give the commission a list of qualifications it’s looking for in consultants.



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