Protecting Groundwater Expensive Reality for County Stakeholders
Protecting groundwater expensive reality for county stakeholders
By Donna Osborn
South County Mail
April 29, 2009
The neighbors sit around the large dining table inside the old family farmhouse situated on 255 acres of bucolic Webster County farmland. The spring wind howls outside and bangs the chimes that hang from the ceiling of one of the porches. To the south, 50 yards from the house, two greenhouses glow with artificial light as a car whizzes by on state Route U.
Coffee brews in the kitchen and a freshly baked cake waits for a blade. As a large yellow Lab snoozes at one neighbor’s feet and a cat brushes up against another, the conversation drifts from neighbor to neighbor and strays from the original intent every now and then. But it always comes back to one thing: The ethanol plant and the financial and emotional cost of protecting a natural resource by fighting big business.
“The six families – we’ve paid off at least $250,000 of legal bills,” said homeowner William Hutcherson. “Collectively, we’ve probably coughed up more than $50,000 of our own money.”
It’s not the first time these families came together to plan and it probably won’t be the last. It’s been a way of life for too long – three years, since Gulfstream Bioflex Energy announced its plan to build a $165-million corn ethanol plant between Rogersville and Fordland on U.S. 60.
Hutcherson’s wife, Susan Tolliver, puts the cost into another perspective.
“When you think about all the court dates and the emotional toll on us, you can’t put a monetary price on it,” she said.
All of them live within shouting distance of the proposed plant that was projected to use 880 gallons of water a minute pulled from the underground aquifer that supplies the region surrounding Springfield proper with drinking water – including Christian County. That water usage amounted to 75 percent of Webster’s County current annual water usage, the group’s attorney William McDonald pointed out in a news story published June 2007.
And this is where Citizens for Groundwater Protection launched its assault to stop it. From the table tops inside the homes of ordinary people like Hutcherson and Tolliver and Ronnie and Judy Williams, they took a stand – a costly one.
“They were taking our way of life from us,” said Ronnie Williams, shaking his full head of snow-white hair.
Had the plant gone forward into ethanol production, the depletion of the water table, as some experts predicted, would have affected more than just six families.
“When our wells started to go dry, it would have sucked this community dry,” Judy Williams said.
“As soon as the announcement of that plant was made, realtors couldn’t sell anything local,” Ronnie Williams said.
The residents organized, filed temporary restraining orders and other litigation and lost every legal challenge during the three-year process. Experts testified about the danger, about groundwater pollution; other experts testified to the reverse. All the while a larger national debate raged over the viability of corn-ethanol as a reasonable alternative to gasoline.
“We didn’t win – we lost every battle,” Tolliver said. “But we might have won the war. They have not applied for any more permits. We don’t think they even bought the land.”
The protracted process worked in favor of the residents and perhaps in an odd way, in favor of the proponents of the plant. The outlook for new ethanol production in Missouri is dim; and the nation’s love affair with the alternative biofuels has also waned. This time last year, GBE scrapped plans to build a corn-ethanol plant in Monroe City. Officials cited “high feedstock prices.”
A May 2008 report from the online newsletter Biofuels Digest said:
“Ethanol plant development in Missouri slowed to a standstill at the end of last summer. After boom conditions in recent years, no new plants were submitted or revised permit applications after July 2007, and none of the three pending, approved projects have been built, including Renewable Power of Missouri and Ethanex. The third company, Bootheel Agri-Energy, said it would return equity invested in the company to shareholders, with interest, after the project failed to obtain a required financing commitment by the expiration of the equity offering period.”
Missouri’s ethanol industry also suffered setbacks when it was revealed that some investors in the Show Me Ethanol plant were lawmakers with one investor being a brother to then-Gov. Matt Blunt.
According to information from Biofuels Digest, the Carrolton plant that eventually did open “lost $6 million in state incentives because of the ties to lawmakers.” Legislators or their immediate families cannot invest in plants that receive “favorable state tax treatment,” the report said.
And according to an April 8 online report from BioEnergy Business, the Carroll County facility that finally began production last year lost $19 million in 2008, “including a $14.1 (million) loss from hedging deals for the maize it uses as feedstock.”
Tolliver said, and the others agreed, had the plant gone forward as planned, it would have been obsolete before it produced the first ounce of fuel. It would have been a “colossal eyesore” on the landscape of progress.
Tolliver said the group didn’t then and doesn’t now have even a narrow political agenda – the only mission was protecting the groundwater that bubbles under their homes and feeds their wells.
After losing every battle at the circuit level, the group appealed its last and final defeat to the Missouri Court of Appeals. In December 2008, that court upheld the ruling that gave GBE the green light to build the 100-million-gallons-a-year corn-ethanol plant. And, the company had applied for and received its necessary clean-air permit from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.
And then that’s when the other shoe dropped. On March 31, the judge in the case ordered that the defendants could collect on the $25,000 bond posted by the plaintiffs when securing the temporary restraining order against GBE to keep the company from drilling into the aquifer. The order cited more than $60,000 in damages to be recoverable from the bond.
Tolliver said the bond had been returned to the plaintiffs two years ago. And, she doesn’t understand why the judge reinstated it, but views the move as punishment.
“The judge said to reinstate the bond for no apparent reason, two years after it was returned to us,” she said. “We don’t have it. It’s obviously a punishment.”
The Williams share Tolliver’s distress.
“I thought the judge was to work for the people,” Judy Williams said.
“They should uphold the law,” Ronnie Williams said.
The families believe fighting against the ethanol plant was the right thing to do. And while many people talk about water protection and water conservation, they did something about it.
“I think we’ve done a big favor for the whole southwest Missouri region,” Tolliver said. “We don’t want any more legal trouble. We want to be portrayed as defending all of southwest Missouri’s water.”
But fears linger.
“I worry that they will still come back and build it,” Ronnie Williams said.
Renergie was formed by Ms. Meaghan M. Donovan on March 22, 2006 for the purpose of raising capital to develop, construct, own and operate a network of ten ethanol plants in the parishes of the State of Louisiana which were devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Each ethanol plant will have a production capacity of five million gallons per year (5 MGY) of fuel-grade ethanol. Renergie’s “field-to-pump” strategy is to produce non-corn ethanol locally and directly market non-corn ethanol locally. On February 26, 2008, Renergie was one of 8 recipients, selected from 139 grant applicants, to share $12.5 million from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Renewable Energy Technologies Grants Program. Renergie received $1,500,483 (partial funding) in grant money to design and build Florida’s first ethanol plant capable of producing fuel-grade ethanol solely from sweet sorghum juice. On April 2, 2008, Enterprise Florida, Inc., the state’s economic development organization, selected Renergie as one of Florida’s most innovative technology companies in the alternative energy sector. On January 20, 2009, Florida Energy & Climate Commission amended RET Grant Agreement S0386 to increase Renergie’s funding from $1,500,483 to $2,500,000. By blending fuel-grade ethanol with gasoline at the gas station pump, Renergie will offer the consumer a fuel that is renewable, more economical, cleaner, and more efficient than unleaded gasoline. Moreover, the Renergie project will mark the first time that Louisiana farmers will share in the profits realized from the sale of value-added products made from their crops.