Plans to build an ethanol plant near Erskine have suffered another setback, with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency set to recommend that the project, proposed by Agassiz Energy LLC, complete a detailed Environmental Impact Statement before proceeding further. The recommendation comes as a result of the project’s 70-page Environmental Assessment Worksheet and its review process, a more basic procedure.
“If the recommendation goes forward as is, it really extends the project,” said Don Sargeant, chairman of the board for Agassiz Energy. “If at all possible, we hope to find ways to provide the information they’re asking for without going through with the whole EIS process, which could take another year.”
Time is of the essence, though, as the MPCA will make the formal “request for a positive declaration on the need for an Environmental Impact Statement” during an MPCA Citizens’ Board meeting Tuesday at the MPCA’s St. Paul Office. The public can also attend and provide comments to the board at this meeting, said Mike Rafferty, project manager with the MPCA.
The board can accept, reject or table the recommendation, but will likely heed the MPCA’s recommendation, which is currently to accept it, Sargeant noted.
“I don’t see any reason why they wouldn’t,” he said. “But we’ve been meeting with the MPCA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and DNR (Department of Natural Resources) to try and come up with agreements to get the data they want within the three months or so. We have a meeting Friday and we’re crossing our fingers.”
Agassiz had tried to get the MPCA to delay its presentation to the Citizens’ Board a month, giving the company time to address these issues, but Sargeant said the agency wanted to go ahead with the March 25 date.
Basis for EIS
In its “proposed Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Order” regarding the EAS, the MPCA concludes “that insufficient information exists to make a reasoned decision about the potential for, or significance of, environmental impacts, and that the lacking information can be reasonably obtained.” The agency took into account several sources of information including staff environmental review, comments and information received during the comment period.
It cites three issues to address in the EIS: effects of groundwater pumping on area wetlands, greenhouse gasses emissions data and a plan to meet conditions of the MPCA’s Mercury Total Maximum Daily Load Implementation Plan. The MPCA decided to include the latter two in future environmental reviews after Agassiz’s EAW was already prepared and placed on public notice. However, because an EIS is recommended on the first topic, the others can be addressed in it as well.
During the 45-day public comment period that ended Jan. 17, the MPCA received 82 letters. Three were from government agencies, one from the non-profit Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and 78 from citizens, primarily people who live or own property in the area. Fifty-nine requested an EIS. Thirteen letters expressed support for the project. Ten letters also came in after the comment period, nearly evenly split for and against.
“There were a large number of comments and it’s good people had this opportunity to publicly register their comments,” said Sargeant.
The MPCA responded to all comments, with common issues and concerns summarized in its findings. Although several comments were beyond the EAW’s scope and the MPCA was unable to address others, the agency thoroughly answered those it could.
In a letter received during the comment period, the USFWS expressed several concerns about wetlands. Of particular concern is the 540-acre Erskine Complex Waterfowl Production Area northwest of the project area, which includes a wetland easement that protects 43 acres of wetland within a one-mile radius of the proposed plant. The USFWS also expressed concern that the wetlands inventory in the EAW was incomplete.
“I think we can resolve a couple of these topics rather easily,” Sargeant explained. “But we need to know exactly what scope of information is needed. For example, greenhouse gasses is a very broad topic – what do they expect us to provide?”
Even since the EAW was prepared, Agassiz has been making a lot of progress in obtaining and developing more information, particularly with ground and surface water monitoring, he added.
The MPCA would prepare the EIS, if warranted, which could cost Agassiz as much as half a million dollars, depending on how in-depth the study is. Sargeant noted that even addressing one topic in the EIS could cost around $200,000 and take eight months to complete.
“It’s a process to go through, one that we’d like to avoid if at all possible,” he said.
In the EAW and at public meeting regarding the project, MPCA staff and other professionals said thorough studies showed no potentially hazardous effects to people living in the area, whether through air, water or noise pollution. In January, Agassiz officials expressed optimism that the EAW would be acceptable as it appeared to provide all necessary information.
Fraught with delays
The Agassiz Ethanol project has hit several snags and its timeline pushed back significantly since it began around four years ago. The equity drive was delayed a year and is now suspended pending the outcome of the EAW and investor interest. The EAW that took more than two years to compete, the slow-moving permitting process, high construction estimates that forced Agassiz to seek another builder and market conditions have all factored into delays.
“Everything now is riding on this environmental review,” said Sargeant. “We’re looking for a capital solution and applied for every permit we can at this time, but until this is settled, we’re kind of in limbo. But we’re keeping at it.”
The proposed ethanol plant is located approximately 1/2 mile southeast of Erskine, south of U.S. Highway 2 near the Highway 59 intersection and two railroad lines. The $115 to $130 million facility would be built with a 70-million gallon per year production possibility, initially producing 55 million gallons, and could employ as many as 37 people.
To view the MPCA’s document’s regarding Agassiz Ethanol, see the website www.pca.state.mn.us/news/eaw. They are also available at public libraries in Crookston, Climax, Fosston, Fertile, East Grand Forks and McIntosh.