Guest Column: Apparently, ethanol plant emissions aren’t the only thing that stinks

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-113701337127246.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stephanie Caltagerone’, ‘An alternative to the oil wars or an imposition on health and private property rights? More than 300 residents of Winnebago, Rockford, and unincorporated Winnebago County assembled in the cafetorium at Winnebago High School Thursday, Jan. 5, for a public meeting on the proposed ethanol plant at 1951 Meridian Rd.’);

When I asked Wendy Larson what her concerns were regarding a proposed ethanol plant to be located at 1951 Meridian Rd., her response was, “I’m very concerned about the timing.”

I was confused until I thought back to last Christmas. I was working as the afternoon host on a local talk radio station, and “Slaughtertalk” was a daily component of my show at the time. Then, I remembered all the pig-themed Christmas gifts I received. There were pig Christmas ornaments, pig planters, glassware adorned with pigs, singing pigs, pig greeting cards, pigs, pigs, everywhere.

Larson, a resident of one of the five residential developments within a 1.5-mile radius of the proposed plant, explained how a developer had submitted to Winnebago County a zoning application in late November. Following a pattern now familiar to residents of southwest Winnebago County, residents received notification over the holidays.

During the supposed season of “glad tidings,” they had to begin the cycle of informing their neighbors, attempting to obtain information from the county, and educating themselves about the zoning process as well as the impact living across the street from an ethanol plant could have on their homes and families. I had to agree that the process used by the county to bring us the Trim-Rite slaughtering facility had many similarities to how the county is handling a proposed ethanol plant.

The residents’ requests for information and dialogue were, at times, met with an arrogance many in the group found shocking. They found that precious little information regarding the project existed. Neither of the two County Board members I spoke to had received any information. Yet, members of the residents’ group had been told that meetings had taken place between Winnebago County Chairman Scott Christiansen and Wight Partners, the developers of said ethanol plant.

Wendy Larson, who is very disturbed by the process, said: “Democracy is based on full and informed participation. You shouldn’t need a legal background to get information; my grandmother should be able to get information.” A Freedom of Information Act request was filed, and the group obtained a copy of the zoning application that was filed with the Winnebago County Planning and Zoning Department. They also obtained a copy of the opinion of the Winnebago County Soil and Water Conservation District on the impact the ethanol plant proposed for the site could have.

According to the Conservation District, the area in question “is rated as having excessive sensitivity to aquifer contamination” and that this particular project may “require a large volume of groundwater withdrawal.” Regarding the proximity to the south fork of Kent Creek, the Conservation District acknowledged that a development of this kind “could have a negative impact on the stream and its ecology.”

It took about one week for the group of residents to come to the unsettling conclusion that no one was going to address their concerns. Like so many responsible citizens before them, their questions were dismissed as the rumblings of a few disgruntled NIMBYs. Organizers of the meeting have been told by elected and appointed officials that their concerns are “premature,” that changing the zoning of the parcel does not necessarily mean that an ethanol plant will end up there.

Let’s look at how this zoning change that came before the ZBA initially. The following is the opening paragraph of the letter attached to the zoning application that Wight Partners Interational, LLC, of Schaumburg, Illinois, submitted to John Lindeman, of the Winnebago County Planning and Zoning Department, dated November 28, 2005:

“Dear Mr. Lindeman:

“Enclosed please find the Zoning Application for the zoning map amendment requesting a change in the zoning designation of the above captioned property from AG—agricultural priority district to IH—heavy industrial district to permit the development of a 100 million gallon per year corn to ethanol processing plant with a blending facility.”

When the county is considering changing zoning of this parcel at the request of Wight Partners for the explicit purpose to build an ethanol plant, intelligent people may think there is a distinct possibility that if approved, an ethanol plant will be built. For the sake of argument, let us assume for a moment that an ethanol plant is not built on this parcel of land. A change to heavy industrial zoning would also allow slaughterhouses, chlorine factories, slag piles, dumps, rendering plants, the manufacture and storage of explosives, etc., without any future action of the County Board.

Like so many responsible citizens before them, they did the only thing they could and organized a public meeting, inviting the public and the involved parties.

On Thursday, Jan. 5, 2006, more than 300 people assembled in the cafetorium at Winnebago High School. The crowd consisted of residents of Winnebago, Rockford and unincorporated Winnebago County.

A number of residents of the area shared with the audience their concerns about the impact a zoning change and an ethanol plant may have on air and water quality, home values, and future development.

Those in attendance were given a crash course in the ethanol production process and a listing of chemicals and carcinogens the emissions of such a plant will be releasing.

Also speaking before the audience were Lena-area residents who shared their opinions of the impact the Adkins Energy ethanol facility had on their community and quality of life.

Unlike last year, invited area elected and appointed officials actually attended this meeting. Illinois EPA Director Doug Scott declined the invitation. Rockford Ald. Victory Bell, State Rep. Chuck Jefferson, Winnebago County Director of Regional Planning Sue Mroz, as well as a number of Winnebago County Board members were in attendance.

State Rep. Jim Sacia spoke to the crowd of the economic benefits of the proposal, specifically the benefit to area farmers, and encouraged all to visit the Adkins Energy facility near Lena, Ill. or a facility located in Monroe, Wis. Sacia did not agree with all the information disseminated during the meeting, stating that “some of the information here tonight simply is not consistent with fact”; however, he did not specify what that information was.

Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen then took the stage; but rather than address any of the concerns aired earlier in the evening, he explained the Zoning Board of Appeals process, expressly advising residents that they may not contact individual ZBA members. Christiansen had originally committed to giving a presentation on the proposal; but on Thursday evening, he told the audience that it would be “inappropriate at this stage” for him to speak to them regarding the proposed project. Christiansen has found it appropriate to speak, on multiple occasions, with the Farm Bureau and Wight Partners about the proposed project.

Christiansen also told the group that a bus trip would be scheduled to visit one of the facilities that Sacia had mentioned. Unlike last year, taxpayers were not excluded from the invitation.

It must be noted that the Adkins plant, referred to by Sacia, produces about half the ethanol as the plant proposed for Winnebago County; and that in 2003, a citizens’ group filed a federal lawsuit to force the plant to comply with the federal Clean Air Act.

Christiansen also stated that local officials have asked the county “for more commercial tax base.” As this parcel is located in unincorporated Winnebago County, I’m still not sure who these local officials are. “Commercial” is defined as office, retail, recreation, and entertainment establishments, according to Rockford’s 2020 Plan. While I’m sure the local officials of whatever municipality eventually annexes the area in question would love more commercial tax base, I’m not so sure they or their constituents are really excited about the slaughterhouse, rendering facility, or ethanol plant that the county has pursued for the area between Winnebago and Rockford.

You wi

ll notice that the Lowe’s development, just 2 miles away from the proposed ethanol plant site, did not generate the controversy among the citizenry that Trim-Rite or the Wight Group’s ethanol plant have. I think, in part, that is because a distribution center doesn’t stink.

I have never visited an ethanol plant, and I’ve heard conflicting opinions on whether they emit foul odors. At this point, I am only willing to address what I know stinks and that is the disregard the county administration has for the very people they are paid to serve.

“The arrogance of power is a corrupting factor in government. Rather than listen to my point of view, they feel they know better,” said Larson.

The zoning application will be before the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA)Wednesday, Jan. 11, in Room 501 of the Winnebago County Administration Building.

The ZBA is designated to determine whether a zoning request should be approved based on a set of criteria that includes: conserving existing values of land and buildings; promoting public health, safety, comfort, convenience, morals, and general welfare; protecting character and stability of residents, agriculture, business, and industrial areas within the county; and promoting orderly and beneficial development of such areas.

The zoning request for the ethanol plant should then come before the Zoning Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006, before it is presented to the County Board for approval.

It is obvious as I talk with residents that many are less than comfortable with the public role they feel they’ve been forced into. As I prepard to leave Wendy Larson’s home after our interview, she told me, “I’m really not a political person.”

I had to laugh, and explain that a “political person” wouldn’t blink an eye at the way the county is handling this proposal—this is business as usual. And, by the way, Wendy, I’m not a “political person,” either.

From the Jan. 11-17, 2006, issue

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