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Ethanol Plant Still Up in Air

July 27, 2008

By Patrick Kane, The Progress-Index, Petersburg, Va.

Jul. 27–HOPEWELL — Although the land is paid for, nobody’s opening an ethanol plant on Main Street just yet. The state’s Department of Environmental Quality is still working on the required permits so that Osage Bio Energy can construct the state’s first ethanol plant in Hopewell.

“We instructed the applicant to do modeling to prove at the fence line near the facility that the levels meet standards,” said DEQ spokesman Homer L. “Sparky” Lisle Jr. “Both of these basically tell you that no harm will be done to someone standing at the fence.”

Two points of concern arose within the permit process, Lisle said. The DEQ wants to ensure that total output meets the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards, and that the plant won’t put out too many hazardous air pollutants.

It appears that two pollutants are above the exemption level — acrolein and formadahyde. Acrolein is “a colorless or yellow liquid with a disagreeable odor,” according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services. Formadahyde has many industrial uses, including embalming.

A third pollutant, acetaldehyde, was mistakenly judged to be above the exemption level, Lisle said.

“It is exempt using the appropriate levels,” he said, although at 9.4 tons/year “very near the limit for a single pollutant.”

The DEQ will wait several weeks for Osage Bio Energy to conduct computer modeling tests. The models take into account everything from Hopewell’s terrain to the other factories and plants in the area, Lisle said.

All indications are good, but the agency is still waiting for final results. A permit is required before the plant could operate.

“There is still a minor chance that some input could throw it off,” he said. “Because of the citizens’ comments, a large portion of our process is to use this model to help us predict what the levels are going to be around the plant,” he said.

The DEQ is taking people’s concerns about the plant to heart.

“Not only is this a mixed industrial area, but there are lots of other uses around” including schools and government buildings, Lisle said.

The plant was controversial from the start, splitting City Council and the business community on whether it was the best use for the former Exeter site. Long an industrial site, part was owned by the city and part by HDC LLC, which was involved in litigation with the city over a failed redevelopment plan.

The legal squabble was set aside when the land sale went through June 25. The city earned about $1 million for their plot, with HDC LLC’s parcel going for an estimated $1.5 million. The city money was used to pay off the cleanup of the Exeter property, which was once classified a Superfund site.

With all the quarreling, it’s easy to forget the DEQ considered the facility a minor pollutant. Lisle said it would produce less than 100 tons of criteria pollutants. Also, hazardous air pollutants would be limited to a combined 25 tons per year with no single pollutant above 10 tons per year. The agency wasn’t required by law to hold a public hearing to issue the permit, but did anyway.

Lisle thinks that high energy prices have pushed it into the public eye.

“This is the first ethanol plant permitted in recent times in Virginia. Typically there is not much interest for a minor source,” he said. “I think with fuel prices and with people paying attention to what’s going on around them in the environment, everyone’s watching to see what happens.”

–Patrick Kane may be reached at 722-5155 or pkane@progress-index.com.

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