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DNR pressing United Ethanol over odor complaints

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Neil Johnson
August 19, 2013

MILTON—The state Department of Natural Resources plans to pressure United Ethanol officials in Milton to alter operations whenever residents report odors from the plant.

In a meeting with Milton city officials Monday, Brian Barbieur, DNR air management engineer, said plant officials have agreed to automatically adjust blends of chemical ingredients used in ethanol production whenever people make formal complaints about bad smells coming from the plant.

The move comes after the DNR met earlier this month with United Ethanol officials in the wake of 14 odor complaints filed this year with the DNR and the city of Milton, an uptick in complaints compared to the last two years.

Complaints over odors from the plant have climbed from just a few in 2011 to 11 in 2012 and 14 so far in 2013, according to DNR and city records. 

Barbieur said he's investigated complaints at the plant and has found no violations in emissions, plant operations or maintenance. Emissions standards are not based on odors, but by law and DNR policy, industries are not allowed to release emissions that are considered "objectionable," Barbieur said.

On Monday, Barbieur said the plant reports odor complaints from United Ethanol as “intermittent” and "insignificant.”

Yet he said United Ethanol struck an Aug. 8 agreement with the DNR that whenever the plant gets an odor complaint, it will automatically make changes to operations, including:

-- Adjusting the temperature of its dryers.

-- Adjusting the size of loads of grain byproducts processed in dryers at the plant.

-- Contacting people who file odor complaints about the results of odor investigations, and ask them if operational changes at the plant have taken care of the odor.

A former DNR agreement required United Ethanol only to investigate odor complaints and file reports with the DNR and the city of Milton.

Odor complaint reports from as recently as June show the plant has investigated smell complaints and found them to be unfounded. In one case, the plant in a report blamed the smell on a farmer who was spreading manure on a nearby field.

According to odor complaint reports, in many cases when plant odor complaints are unfounded, United Ethanol has continued production without altering its operations. Changes could include reducing the temperature of dryers and cutting load sizes in the dryers of “syrup,” a corn and water slurry that's used in production of ethanol byproducts and feed, Barbieur said.

The syrup is semi-solid and can add particles to emissions and cause offensive odors, Barbieur indicated.

Barbieur said the new, more comprehensive agreement is designed to force the plant to do more investigating and troubleshooting to get to the bottom of an apparent increase in odor issues.

The new agreement is not yet in writing, but the DNR will monitor the plant's odor investigation reports for compliance. The reports show results of odor investigations and also any changes the plant makes to operations after people file complaints.

While the number of odor complaints this year is nowhere near the dozens filed during the plant's first few years of operations, Milton City Administrator Jerry Schuetz and other city officials requested a meeting with the DNR. They were concerned by the increasing frequency of complaints and United Ethanol's past emissions violations.

“It's important to the city that they (United Ethanol) are in compliance with all laws,” Schuetz said Monday. “We ask for meetings like this because we don't want anyone to step backward."

In 2008, about a year after United Ethanol opened, the Wisconsin DNR ended an eight-month investigation of the plant's emissions that revealed multiple violations—including findings that the plant's equipment for cleaning emissions was undersized, and emissions were going unmonitored, according to DNR records.

The violations led to United Ethanol getting slapped with a $700,000 fine and a 2011 court order on how it must manage and report its emissions and plant operations and maintenance to state officials.

This year, United Ethanol neighbors have made a resurgence of complaints about smelling sour or sickly-sweet odors, along with burnt corn odors and a brewery-like smell, according to complaints on file at the DNR.

Those complaints seem less critical than in the plant's earlier days, when DNR analyses revealed the plant was emitting formaldehyde and other carcinogens in elevated levels, Barbieur said.

The DNR has suggested if there are continued problems with smells from the plant, it could do a survey of nearby residents, Barbieur said. Plant officials have said they'd insist the survey include the entire city of Janesville, because odor complaints have come from those residents, too, he said.

Barbieur said it's doubtful the DNR would spend resources to analyze a city of 63,000 for odor complaints coming from a plant in another city. He also told city officials it wasn't likely the DNR would pay to put emissions monitoring equipment near the plant, either temporarily or permanently.

Meanwhile, Barbieur said, United Ethanol has submitted the first of three court-ordered audits from the 2011 ruling on its violations.

He said the audit, which was conducted by a third party, has turned up no violations, but parts of it were incomplete—including a section that's supposed to show how the plant has maintained or altered any of its valves or related equipment.

Barbieur said United Ethanol is required to file that portion of the audit by November or it risks not being in compliance with the 2011 court order.



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