Rural residents protest ethanol expansionsby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
The rapidly-growing ethanol industry faced little opposition as it developed. Now more community groups are opposing ethanol plants, at the same the industry faces an economic downturn.
Moorhead, Minn. — When the ethanol industry started about 20 years ago, the plants were owned by farmers. They grew the corn that was turned into ethanol and they collected the profits when the plants flourished.
Now, many plants are owned by outside investors and much of the profit leaves the community. That may be one reason more communities are fighting to stop new ethanol plants.
Lee Hoaas lives near Erskine, in northwest Minnesota. Just down the road is the site of a proposed ethanol plant. Hoaas says at first he didn't pay much attention to the project.
"I really wasn't that interested in it until about ten weeks ago. My wife went to a meeting and asked some questions and the answers she got to her questions were just not good answers," Hoass says. "So I started doing research and you know with the Internet you can get all the information you could ever want in about ten minutes."
Hoaas says he's concerned about how much water the ethanol plant will use and how aquifers will be affected. He worries the coal-burning plant will cause air pollution.
Hoaas found other community groups opposing ethanol plants online. He contacted those groups to learn how to challenge the ethanol plant construction.
About 100 people came to a community meeting he organized earlier this month, but Hoaas says it's not easy to create a grassroots organization in northern Minnesota.
"We live in a conservative, Scandinavian area. People do not get up and talk. They don't write letters to the editor. They don't stand up and be heard like in other parts of the country," says Hoaas. "So in our area, people call us at night. They'll talk to us in the grocery store or gas station and say, 'We like what you're doing, we agree with you, keep it up.' That's the kind of support we get."
Hoaas says he's been frustrated trying to get answers to his questions about air and water pollution.
"It's very, very, very difficult to get specific answers from an ethanol builder," says Hoaas. "They kind of just say, 'It's going to be good for the area, it's going to be good for the economy, it's going to be good for the farmers, it's going to be good for everybody.' And then they pat you on the back and everything is going to be all right. And I didn't accept that."
Some of the questions will likely be answered by an environmental assessment of the project. That's part of the state permit process for a new ethanol plant. The information hasn't been made public yet.
The proposed Erskine ethanol plant, down the road from Lee Hoaas, is currently on hold. The company recently stopped trying to raise money to build the plant.
Agassiz Energy Board Chairman Donald Sargeant, says high corn prices have cooled investors interest in ethanol plants. But the permit process continues and the company hopes the ethanol outlook will improve next year so it will be easier to find investors.
Sargeant says community opposition does make the project more difficult. More questions can make the permit process longer and more expensive. Sargeant says those who are fighting the project base much of their information on inaccurate facts. He says it's difficult to challenge misinformation. "There are always going to be questions and the more you know the more questions you can come up with. Sometimes you run into individuals, if you really don't want it in your backyard, no matter what questions you answer, they'll put out just to be sure they keep this process going and delay the project," says Sargeant.
The Erskine project isn't the only one in Minnesota facing organized opposition. A citizens group in Olmsted county wants to stop ethanol plant construction near Eyota.
Agassiz Energy Chairman Donald Sargeant believes there's more opposition to ethanol plants simply because the industry is growing and changing more small rural communties. "Why don't dogs bark at parked cars? Because nothing is happening. When you start to have things happen, people bark," Sargeant says. "Change is change and so it isn't the way it's going to be. The question is trying to forecast the future and see what that area could look like. To me, the economic development really is significant and the environmental issues are not nearly as significant."
Agassiz Energy intends to resume raising money from investors next year and Donald Sargeant says there's a strong liklihood an ethanol plant will be built in Erskine.
Erskine resident Lee Hoaas says he'll keep fighting the project even after it's built.
- Morning Edition, 10/16/2007, 7:20 a.m.