BREAKING NEWS: digester decision put on hold

Posted at 2:30 p.m. on September 6, 2019

Public hearing brings out project doubters, critics 

By Ed Byrne

The Brillion News

GREENLEAF – There will be no action yet on the plan by BC Organics to build a $60 million manure digester plant just outside Greenleaf in the Town of Wrightstown. A public hearing before the Wrightstown Town Board on Wednesday, September 4, saw the plans come under fire from local critics.

The town’s Plan Commission had been expected to meet on Monday, September 9, to set conditions for the plant to get the permit needed for the project – but that meeting has been cancelled. And the regular town board meeting for Wednesday, September 11, has an agenda makes no mention of the digester project. At the September 4 hearing, town officials said that the town board could act on the digester’s conditional use permit at its September 11 meeting.

At the September 4 hearing, the town board identified 33 specific concerns that the Plan Commission feels need to be addressed by specific conditions to be enumerated in a conditional use permit that’s required for the project to go forward.

The meeting was civil for the most part. Members of the public were told to address the town board and no one else in their comments.

The only heated moment came after Steve Des Lauriers, a member of the Brown County Board of Supervisors, stated that the group (Dynamic/B.C. Organics) proposing the Town of Wrightstown digester was also the developer of the Clear Horizons manure digester project in Dane County – which was plagued with numerous environmental and operational problems.

After Des Lauriers made his statement, BC Organics’ spokesman Duane Toenges called him a liar, sparking a quick and strong response directed at Toenges from town chairman William Verbeten and town attorney James Kalny.

B.C. Organics project engineer Dan Nemke, then calmly said that the problems at Clear Horizons happened after Dynamic left the project.

Major points

In addition to the town board and representatives of B.C. Organics (BCO), the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was represented by its regional Secretary’s Director Jean Romback-Bartels, and the town had Dean LaFleur, an engineer from its consulting engineering firm, Robert E. Lee & Associates, present as a resource.

Romback-Bartels made it clear that the DNR approves of the project, which would create the world’s largest manure digester plant.

The strongest criticism of the project came from town residents Linda Clemedtson and Ann Shibler, Rockland town resident Matt Giese, and Town of Holland resident Marty Adams.

Shilber told the board that the state Department of Revenue said the plant would adversely affect the value of nearby properties.

She also criticized the town for its handling of the application by BCO and said she is horrified by the process.

“I think it was clear from the beginning that many Plan Commission members and the board were clearly in favor of this from the start – so I’m questioning your objectivity,” Shilber said. She said members of the public giving comment during the process were “put down.”

Kalny defended the town officials, saying they were acting in good faith.

Financial feasibility

A significant challenge to the project came from Clemedtson, who said the financials don’t add up because the project requires government subsidies and renewable energy tax credits to keep out of red ink.

She said 90 percent of the project’s revenues are coming from “green energy” subsidies and credits.

Clemedtson said the process won’t produce “green energy” as it claims – saying it essentially requires the equivalent of 1½ gallons of diesel fuel to create the equivalent of a gallon of bio-diesel.

“It’s certainly not ‘green’ when it comes to producing energy,” she said.

She said an analysis of the project plan by Tetratech said it should produce marketable products. She said a report on the project’s financial viability had sections that were blacked out.

Clemedtson said the  project depends on subsidies that are guaranteed only through the year 2023 and “green energy” credits make up 90 percent of the revenue stream.

If the credits go away, she questioned the project’s financial viability.

“They will not be able to function on only manure,” she said. “Either they shut down or they are under distress and they go to court and they bring in other [non-manure] waste … We could have 300 trucks down here.”

She asked the town to deny the application on the financial risks alone.

Kalny said Clemedtson raised long-term financial feasibility questions that have not been considered, but he also said it’s important to remember that the impetus for the project comes from the state.

“This is a favored project by this state,” Kalny said. “15 million dollars is being contributed by the state.”

Kalny said state law requires the town to have “substantial evidence” in order to reject the conditional use application from BCO.

“Please give me evidence that there’s something wrong with it then,” Kalny said. “We haven’t collected that data, and that’s the type of data we need to make our decision under the law.”

He listed several criticisms that have been offered but don’t hold water.

Two speakers took aim at the technology upon which the plant is based. Both men have professional experience working with waste. One was Matt Giese, a hydrologist who owns Midwest Chemical and Equipment.

“We clean water – that’s my business. We’ve been doing it for 20 years,” Giese said.

He said BCO’s parent company, Dynamic, has a history of starting projects, then leaving before they fall apart. And he said the BCO promise to produce clean water from liquid manure would fail.

“This [project] needs to be bonded. I would highly recommend that, if it does fail, that is is heavily bonded to clean it up and clean up the environmental damage that it could do,” Giese said.

Marty Adams, who was the Brown County Sanitarian for over 20 years before retiring recently, said the town needs to talk with independent experts and not “salesman” from BCO.

“I tend to believe people who are not selling things,” Adams said, adding that when the tax credits end the project will fail.

Adams said that many of the conditions the town plans to place on the digester project will not stand up in court because they conflict with county ordinances.

Des Lauriers said the DNR promises enforcement, but does very little in reality and depends on permit holders to report their own violations.

“Look at past performances of the DNR,” DesLauriers said. He said after years of violations, the Clear Horizons digester was only fined $80,000.

Clear Horizons began operations in 2010 and then had three major manure spills in addition to many air and water quality violations. It also had an explosion and fire. The plant never met its goal of reducing phosphorus from the manure from three participating farms by 60 percent.

Sales pitch

The hearing began with BCO making a sales pitch for the project.

Nemke said it would make an annual “payment in lieu of taxes” (or PILOT) of $177,000. In other selloing points, Nemke said the project would:

  1. Have its own water and septic systems

  2. Only process dairy manure, not any other kind of waste

  3. Create 400 construction jobs when the plant is being built

  4. Use local contractors

  5. Create 20 permanent jobs when the plant is operational

  6. Reduce by half the volume of liquid manure being spread on farm fields

  7. Reduce the amount of phosphorus runoff going in to the East River-Fox River watershed

The photo accompanying this story is of BCO engineer Dan Nemke and BCO spokesman Duane Toenges (left to right).

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