Debate fuels controversy
September 10, 2006
CNJ Staff Photo: Tony Bullocks
The ethanol plant proposed at this site along U.S. Highway 60/84 as a joint venture of ConAgra and the Carlyle/Riverstone Renewable Energy Infrastructure Fund has residents concerned by its proximity to the city.
Some days, a fine dust settles on her porch furniture and an odor washes through her neighborhood.
“I used to think someone was baking beans,” Marilyn Dottle said.
The dust — actually fine particles of grain — and the smell come from the ConAgra Trade Group grain elevator across the street from Dottle’s home west of Clovis. From her driveway, the spires of the elevator can be seen; from her back window, its faded cylinders and jutting ladders come into full view.
ConAgra plans to build an ethanol plant next to the grain elevator. And Dottle, who spends her days watching her 17-month-old granddaughter, fears her quality of life will soon plummet.
“We don’t feel it should be this close to homes,” said Dottle, 59, as her granddaughter wobbled around her porch on a sunny afternoon.
A joint venture of ConAgra and the Carlyle/Riverstone Renewable Energy Infrastructure Fund, the ConAgra ethanol plant will dwarf the Abengoa plant in nearby Portales.
The ConAgra plant is expected to churn out more than 100 million gallons of ethanol annually. That triples the output of Abengoa.
In Portales, residents complain the plant emits a yeasty odor, which is especially pungent in summer months.
Industrial discharges from Abengoa festered in the city’s wastewater treatment plant, according to officials. Such discharges cause a sewage-like odor to linger at times over the city, Portales officials have said.
In response, stronger ordinances were created this summer for discharges, Portales Mayor Orlando Ortega said.
“It’s a matter of cooperation, finding solutions to these problems,” Ortega said.
ConAgra officials say the two plants should not be compared.
Although the ConAgra plant will probably purchase wastewater from the city, preliminary plans indicate the water will not be returned to the Clovis wastewater treatment center, according to Clovis Public Works Director Harry Wang. Instead, the water would be continually reused by the plant, with unsuitable remnants funneled into a retention pond, Wang said.
Also, because the Clovis plant will employ new technology, smells associated with ethanol production will shrink, ConAgra spokeswoman Melissa Baron said.
“We don’t anticipate any issues with odors,” Baron said.
Baron said she had no details on the type of technology that will be used to mitigate odors. But Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson John Millett said a range of filters can be used to cut odors and other emissions created during ethanol production.
Millett agreed that newer plants generally have fewer emission and odor issues than older plants.
Gov. Bill Richardson has promoted the proposed plant as a boost to eastern New Mexico’s economy.
It’s expected to generate more than 100 jobs — 50 at the plant and 50 to 75 indirect jobs in service of the plant, according to a news release from Richardson’s office.
Another 300 should be employed in the construction of the plant, which could begin late next year.
Tania Graves of ConAgra Foods said Clovis was selected for the site because of available workforce in the region and the convenience of the grain elevator and the railroad.
In coming years, the use of ethanol and its production is set to skyrocket.
An energy law signed by President Bush last year requires refiners use 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol in gasoline annually by 2012.
State and federal environmental watchdogs regard ethanol as an environmentally friendly alternative fuel.
“Ethanol is good for the environment, in terms of when people use ethanol in their cars,” said Marissa Stone, New Mexico Environment Department director of communications.
The fuel — commonly derived from corn in America, but able to be gleaned from nearly any substance that contains sugar — burns more cleanly than gasoline.
“It releases less carbon dioxide (than gasoline) and helps with global warming initiatives,” Stone said.
But during the production of ethanol, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter are emitted.
According to the EPA, those pollutants, in excess amounts, can pose serious health risks. Volatile organic compounds, for instance, are known carcinogens, and carbon monoxide can reduce oxygen delivery to organs and tissues.
All such pollutants are regulated by the New Mexico Environment Department to ensure public health, according to Department officials.
Companies that produce such pollutants are monitored regularly to ensure they do not exceed state standards, Stone said. When warranted, the Department conducts unannounced inspections of companies, she said.
A time line for the regulation of the ConAgra ethanol plant has not been set because the company is still in the early phases of applying for a permit to operate, Stone said.
Stone said the permitting process in New Mexico can be lengthy, but she had no estimate Friday for the length of time it would take to accept or deny ConAgra’s permit application.
Despite oversight, plants across the nation have violated environmental standards.
In 2002, the EPA investigated a pattern of noncompliance within the ethanol industry. Since then, some states have adopted more stringent codes for ethanol pollutants and require plants to implement technology to curb pollution, according to an EPA press release.
“I don’t think you could have a plant (of this size) and not have some toxicity,” said Dottle, who anticipates her husband’s allergies will flare once the plant begins production.
Her worries are shared.
Dottle’s neighborhood comprises at least 50 homes. It is the nearest neighborhood to the plant, which is situated about 350 yards from city limits on U.S. Highway 60/84.
In a colorful garden across the street from Dottle’s modest home, an orange canna lily vies for space. The garden belongs to Evelyn McClure, a widow who calls tending to her flowers a pastime.
Once the plant begins operating, “nobody will be comfortable being outside,” McClure said.
“The fact of the matter,” she said, “is the plant is just too close to too many residential areas.”
Five years ago, McClure was one of the first residents of the neighborhood. Since then, more and more homes have been developed, she said. Other, older homes are situated on adjacent streets.
ConAgra has operated the grain elevator at its highway location for more than a decade, ConAgra officials have said.
But even residents who live farther from the plant have raised concerns about its proximity to the city.
“It will overshadow the whole community,” said Blake Prather, who lives about a mile from the proposed site.
Winds that typify life on the Plains will spread odors and potentially harmful pollutants throughout the city, should the plant operate on its proposed site, Prather said.
The New Mexico Environment Department has received eight letters and several phone calls opposing the location of the plant, according to Stone.
Baron, the ConAgra spokeswoman, said the plant would follow standards for air quality control set by the New Mexico Environment Department.
“We must follow those requirements,” Baron said. “Those requirements are set ... to ensure safety in a community.”
She said she couldn’t share any further details concerning air quality control and general operation of the plant.
Millett, a spokesperson for the EPA office for air and radiation, said national standards for air emissions are based on years of research.
They are set by the EPA using “an extensive science-based process to ensure standards are protective of human health and the environment,” Millett said.
“The human body is able to deal with certain pollutants with no problem at low levels. Other pollutants don’t work that way,” he said.
Although states can set their pollutant standards above the EPA’s, state standards cannot fall below the EPA’s, Millett said. In New Mexico, standards are not set above the EPA’s, according to Stone.