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Area residents not yet sold on proposed ethanol plant

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image Questions about a proposed ethanol plant in the Gibsonton area were still being asked after a community meeting last week. Melody Jameson Photo

Citizens here and in surrounding communities are weighing merits of a large proposed ethanol plant in their backyard


GIBSONTON – Looking at needed jobs on one hand and at unwanted pollution on the other, citizens here and in surrounding communities are weighing merits of a large proposed ethanol plant in their backyard.

About 25 of them assembled last week at East Bay High School to hear presentations from the proposed plant operators and from Hillsborough County’s Environmental Protection Commission staff, and then to voice their concerns.

Frequently, they pointed to the upside – perhaps 150 plant jobs on three shifts to be filled – but also questioned at what costs – the downsides of anticipated air, noise, odor and light pollutions from a plant receiving trainloads of grain, fermenting it with water, processing the resulting combined ethyl and alcohol, storing it, and then shipping out both the ethanol for mechanical power use and the more solid grain by-product for animal feed.

Ethanol, a colorless, odorless liquid, has a long and checkered history. According to Wikipedia, the substance is characterized by volatility both because it has been consumed for its intoxicating effects since ancient times and because it has been adapted to power internal combustion engines in modern times. In addition to being classified as one of the oldest recreational drugs, it also is used in thermometers, for solvents and in scents, flavorings, colorings and medications.

Then, too, the ethanol movement has both strong advocates and outspoken detractors. Supporters of ethanol added to gasoline as engine fuel point to the fact it is the product of renewable resources, it is and can be domestically produced, plus it burns cleaner than gasoline.

But it is not problem free. Ethanol picks up water as well as impurities and for this reason is not put through pipelines with gasoline, requiring more expensive and complicated truck, rail or barge transport. It also contains less energy than gasoline, putting users back at the pumps more often. Critics, in fact, argue that price increases at the pump are due at least in part to the increased ethanol transportation costs and that the U.S. does not have adequate infrastructure for widespread ethanol use.

The best outlook for ethanol, reported Bloomberg’s Businessweek online, is use of cellulosic materials such as corn stalks rather than corn kernels in the manufacture, emphasizing the positives and diminishing the negatives.

The Sunshine Way Ethanol plant, nonetheless, is projected to manufacture about 200 million gallons of 200 proof ethanol per year from corn when running at peak capacity. The $325 million facility, proposed for acreage south of Kracker Road, east of U.S. 41 adjacent to existing CSX Railroad tracks, is to be financed by a group of private, unnamed investors and built by an entity known as the Construction Tradition Group (CTG). For charge-up, the processing system is expected to use 120 million gallons of fresh water annually, a substantial part of it filtered and recycled after first use, said Mark Stargardt, a consultant speaking for a consortium including CTG.

According to information provided to Hillsborough’s EPC as part of a permit application, the plant will receive two South Florida harvests of No. 2 “Dent” corn – a grade not grown for human consumption, with each harvest coming in by rail during a four-month span of time. The corn is to be stored in 12 silos onsite as it is screened to separate out husks, rocks, and other debris and then conveyed to a hammermill where it is to be ground to a coarse flour. The milled grain then is to travel to process tanks where water is added, enzymes mixed in, heat applied and the slurry allowed to break down, ultimately into sugars.

The mixture subsequently is to be transferred to one of six fermentation tanks where yeast is introduced. Over a period of hours and with further processing, the sugar in the mash eventually is converted to 190 proof ethanol. Passed through a molecular sieve to remove remaining water, the absolute ethanol, 200 proof, is to be stored in five internal floating roof tanks before leaving the site via pipeline or aboard tanker trucks or railcars.

The permit application also notes the heat will be supplied by three steam boilers fueled by natural gas. And, to control airborne particulates created early in the corn handling process a “baghouse” arrangement has been designed to recover floating particles. The estimated emissions all are under the “major” levels of the Clean Air Act amendments, the application states.

It was this particulate issue that drew the most passionate response from one resident at the EPC meeting who pleaded his seriously ill daughter could be irreparably harmed by dust and other emissions from the plant. “What are you going to do for her if she gets worse?” he entreated.

Similarly, citizens from Apollo Beach and Covington Park and Kings Lake pointed to black dust particle emissions coming east from Tampa Electric’s Big Bend power plant, frequently visible on parked cars and patio furniture and pool decks. The ethanol plant, they posited, well may assault them with corn dust and other emissions coming south and west.

They questioned whether truck and rail traffic, both bringing materials in and taking products out of the plant site, would not create noise as well as congestion on the existing roadways. They wondered aloud about an odor nuisance and plant operation noises above acceptable levels. They raised the issue of industrial lighting overpowering surrounding neighborhoods during second and third shifts. In view of the highly flammable ethanol kept onsite, they asked about the possibility of life and property-threatening explosions.

In short, they noted “this is not going to help our property values.”

John Vogel asserted his opposition, saying “it’s wrong; it’ll cost $9 or $10 a gallon to make every gallon of ethanol. It would be better to drill for oil.” Paul Savage, on the other hand, voiced his support for the project with simply “We need the jobs.”

Stargardt also addressed questions about an early April St. Petersburg Times article which detailed the criminal history of one of the leading figures in the CTG consortium and reported situations in which the same individual has been alleged to have abandoned construction jobs in Polk County. Stargardt called the newspaper’s report “only marginally accurate.”

After the meeting, before witnesses, he advised the St. Petersburg Times reporter and the newspaper of possible legal action, but declined to answer more questions. Still later, in answer to questions from The Observer, he offered long and detailed explanations of all of the instances previously reported.

Hillsborough’s EPC has requested additional information concerning details of the project from its promoters prior to issuing an air permit. That expanded information is due May 9. Additional permits also will be required. u

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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