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Ethanol-Plant Plan Divides Chase City: A Similar Proposal in Hopewell Has Also Caused Controversy

June 24, 2008

By Jamie C. Ruff, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.

Jun. 23–CHASE CITY — Cruise down Chase City’s West Sycamore Street near the tract where an ethanol plant is proposed to be constructed and you see signs of opponents’ discontent.

Signs declaring “No Ethanol Plant” sprout here and there from yards like stubborn weeds.

For opponents of the project, the signs tell everything there is to know — that there is a groundswell of opposition speaking loud and clear. Opponents say they have more than 1,400 signatures on a petition opposing plans for the ethanol-producing facility proposed by Glen Allen-based Osage Bio Energy LLC. Osage plans to produce the alternative fuel mostly from Virginia-grown barley.

“Ethanol is not the solution,” said Ida O’Sullivan, a member of the opposition group Association to Preserve Mecklenburg.

But for supporters of the project, such as Monty Hightower, it is the number of yards that haven’t put up signs that says more. In a county of about 32,000, the number of those having signed the petition against the project is a small percentage, he said.

“It’s not that much opposition,” Hightower said. “They are just louder. They are not in the majority by no means.”

The town of Chase City has a population of about 2,300.

Opponents accept that most people might not have a problem with the plant, but say that is because most of the county’s residents will be unaffected. “You talk about the people around the plant, [opposition] is way higher,” said Richard Henry, another opponent.

Osage is proposing a facility just outside of Chase City that would produce 55 million gallons of ethanol a year. The company is also finalizing plans for an almost identical plant in Hopewell.

Osage has until July 31 to finalize the Hopewell deal, which has divided residents and local officials and prompted two lawsuits. The location of the Hopewell site near the downtown area is one of the biggest concerns.

In Mecklenburg County, the Board of Supervisors has already rezoned 157 acres of a roughly 600-acre tract on which Osage holds an option to purchase. In July, the board will hold a public hearing on granting a conditional-use permit for the plant. Once the permit is granted, it would be about two years before the plant is operational, said John Warren, a company spokesman.

Hightower said he was initially receptive, and his support grew as he learned more about the project and its potential benefits to the town and the county.

He said reasons to support the project include: the $2 million in state and county taxes it is expected to generate; the initial burst of construction jobs and the workers who will live, shop and eat in the local restaurants; and the prospect of the town having access to water through a line that would run from Boydton to the plant. Chase City currently relies solely on wells for its water.

“I think they are going to be good for Chase City and Mecklenburg,” Hightower said.

Opponents’ concerns include: fears about pollution; increased traffic — especially trucks; the prospect of hazardous chemicals in local waterways; that the plant likely would create only a few jobs for locals; the site’s proximity to their homes and the impact on property values; and other development to which the plant could open the door.

For Mayor-elect Eddie Bratton, who will take office July 1, the water line is a welcome prospect that could help make Chase City attractive to industry, but that didn’t stop him from having an opposition sign on the edge of his yard. His home is on West Sycamore Street about three-quarters of a mile from where the plant would be located.

“I think ethanol as a product is short-lived,” Bratton said. “It doesn’t make sense to me to take a food product and make fuel out of it and we can’t drill for the oil that we’ve got.”

It is the unknown that prompts his concern, Bratton said. The company has promised to take steps to make sure there is no smell, but, Bratton said, that all depends on the company keeping its word.

Bratton is a member of the Chase City Industrial Development Authority, which recently voted 4-2, with Bratton abstaining, to oppose the ethanol project. Bratton abstained because he saw no point to the vote, which couldn’t change anything. The group understands the tax dollars are needed and isn’t so much opposed to the plant as to the site selected. “Why is this the only place in the county this can be built?” Bratton said. An incoming Town Council member has already pledged to bring the issue to a vote in July, Bratton said, adding that he would not be surprised if the board votes to oppose the project.

But all that comes too late to have an impact, he said. The only way the plant could be stopped is if the conditional-use permit were denied, which the county is unlikely to do.

“It won’t have passed completely . . . but the reality is it is done,” Bratton said. “I got a lemon. How can I make lemonade? What can I do to take advantage of what has been thrust upon this little town?”

Warren said all the fears and concerns will be allayed once the plant is in operation and has established itself.

“We’re going to be good neighbors,” he said. “We’re going to be good for the community, and time will tell there really wasn’t anything to worry about.” Contact Jamie C. Ruff at (434) 392-6605 or jruff@timesdispatch.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, Richmond Times-Dispatch, Va.

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