Janesville18.5°

Milton ethanol plant doesn’t have permit to revoke

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Stacy Vogel
September 22, 2009
— A court case that vexed United Ethanol two years ago could be protecting it, for now, from punitive action by the city of Milton.

The plant was up for discussion at a plan commission public hearing Monday to determine whether it violated its conditional-use permit by emitting objectionable odors.


But as it turns out, the plant doesn’t have a conditional-use permit covering most of its operations, plant attorney Dan O’Callaghan said.


The city issued a conditional-use permit to the plant in 2005, but that permit was declared null and void by the court when it declared Milton held too many closed meetings in reaching an agreement with United Ethanol, O’Callaghan said.


Instead of creating a new conditional-use permit, the city made the conditions of that permit part of its developer’s agreement with United Ethanol, he said.


“The plant doesn’t have a conditional-use permit,” O’Callaghan said. “I don’t want that to come to a shock to many, but I fear it does.”


Ironically, the city council cited United Ethanol as the reason it created an ordinance in May giving the city the power to change or revoke conditional-use permits.


City Attorney Mike Schroeder cited the 2005 permit in a memo to the city council in February, when the council first discussed creating the ordinance. He wrote that the permit required the plant to follow Department of Natural Resources regulations, including avoiding objectionable odors.


The memo did not mention that the permit was not valid.


Because that permit was declared null and void, the only conditional-use permit the plant has is the one covering its carbon dioxide-recovery facility, O’Callaghan said. The facility doesn’t produce emissions or cause odors, he said.


City Administrator Todd Schmidt said the city has a duty to make sure that’s true because council member David Adams submitted a complaint alleging the plant was violating its conditional-use permit.


Even if the conditional-use permit doesn’t apply, the plant could still be violating city ordinance that prohibits noxious, offensive or unhealthful odors, Schmidt said. It also could be violating its developer’s agreement that says it must abide by DNR regulations.


But plan commissioners said they don’t know if they have jurisdiction over city ordinance or developer’s agreements.


“We’ve never had anything like this, and I think we’re asking for further legal opinion,” commission member Sue Larson said.


Schmidt said he will research the issue and get back to the commission at its Oct. 12 meeting.


“I feel the same frustration as you do, and to some extent we as staff are working through the new CUP ordinance,” he said. “There’s going to be things we learn from the process, and I thank you for sitting through that learning procedure.”


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The actions of the Milton Plan Commission on Monday centered on a technical argument about United Ethanol’s conditional-use permit or lack thereof. But the most passionate testimony came from plant neighbors and employees arguing about odors and emissions at the plant.


Here is some of what was said:


“I just want to reiterate the fact that we are very concerned about plant operations ... We strive every day to do the best job we can there …


“Our plant smells the same as any other ethanol plants ... That’s part of the manufacturing process.”


David Cramer, United Ethanol president and CEO

“We just want the odors stopped so these people can enjoy their homes … I don’t believe any member of the city council or the plan commission would attempt to put a price on the health and welfare of its residents.”


Council member David Adams, who filed the complaint about odors that triggered the public hearing.

“There have been many days when we’ve been outside and it’s been hard to be out there very long because it does cause headaches or a queasy stomach.”


Ginny Goodman, plant neighbor

“The odors are acidic. They burn your throat, they burn your eyes, they burn your nose. They make your voice raspy.”


Peggy Peterson, plant neighbor

“I think this is a great concern, and that’s what we’re here for, but it’s just completely subjective what we’re talking about here. What’s a nine (on a scale of one to 10) for somebody is a one for somebody else ... A lot of people have major health problems ... I don’t think the findings show that these health problems are coming from our plant.”


Justin Wiegel, plant employee. Wiegel was one of dozens of plant employees and supporters who came to the public hearing, but few spoke.

“You lie.”


John Dorn, plant neighbor, near the end of Wiegel’s speech. The interjection sparked chuckles and mumbling around the room.

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