Not in their front yards
Waverly residents go to court to head off proposed ethanol plant
Ed Fedor worries each time he takes in the scenery at his picturesque century-old Waverly farmhouse.
How much longer, Fedor wonders, will he be able to enjoy the quiet rural lifestyle he’s lived for the past 16 years?
He watches his two sons play with the family dogs, feeds his cattle, walks his land, and sighs.
“I keep thinking,” he says, “soon this is all coming to an end.”
Less than a quarter-mile from Fedor’s home is the site of a planned ethanol refinery that is expected to pump more than 150 million gallons of corn-based fuel a year once it opens in 2008. Construction, set to begin within the year, should take 12 to 14 months to complete.
Fedor fears the impact of such a large-scale industry on the quality of life he and his family have grown to love.
He is one of nine Waverly area citizens, banded together as the Citizens for the Preservation of Rural Environment, who filed a lawsuit in Sangamon County Circuit Court on Oct. 5 against Sangamon County, Waverly Ethanol, and Johnson Shuttle LLC in an effort to block the $300 million project.
The plaintiffs — Fedor and his wife, Geri, along with Rod and Jill Kreoger, Judy Ackerman, Rod and Rhonda Colvin, Larry Green, and Nelson Green — argue that the Sangamon County Board violated its own ordinances by approving the plant. The group also is concerned that the project’s developers have failed to provide critical details.
“It’s all cloak-and-dagger,” Fedor says. “We have the right to know more about the hows, the whens, and the whys before rushing into a decision that could ultimately impact the families around this plant. All of us are baffled by why the County Board would even consider breaking their own rule to accommodate a project that is filled with holes.”
This summer, Johnson Grain LLC, which operates a grain shuttle and storage facility, petitioned the County Board to rezone 424 acres to allow construction of the plant.
The Regional Planning and Zoning Commission, however, advised against the plan, determining that the land was best suited for agricultural use. Among the reasons the commission cited for their recommendation: the plant’s expected heavy consumption of water, lack of a public sewer system and wastewater discharge, and lack of adequate fire protection and emergency services in the area.
By ordinance, zoning changes are evaluated with the use of a scoring system known as LESA, or Land Evaluation and Site Assessment. On LESA’s 0-to-300-point scale, land that scores more than 175 points is considered suitable for agricultural use only. The property planned for the ethanol plant scored 201 points.
Despite that recommendation, both the County Zoning Board of Appeals and the County Board approved an amended petition that provided for rezoning approximately 99 acres for the plant.
“They blew past their own standards,” says Gordon Gates, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. The County Board, Gates says, acted in an arbitrary and capricious fashion, but he’s not surprised.
“This is the case with at least one out of every four proposed ethanol plants,” he says. “They select a ridiculous location and move forward without much consideration.”
It’s not just the plant’s impact on the rural setting that has neighbors worried.
High on the list of their concerns is the plant’s need for water. According to the lawsuit, the plant will consume approximately 2.6 million gallons per day.
“Where is that water coming from?” Fedor asks. “And the wastewater generated is proportionate to the gallons of water needed to produce ethanol — where is that going?”
Similar questions were raised with a proposed ethanol plant in Champaign. There, Andersons Inc. proposed a $140 million refinery that would require 2 million gallons of water a day from the Mahomet aquifer, which supplies Champaign and adjoining Urbana. Worried about the potential impact on its water source, Champaign officials required additional study before moving forward.
Similar concerns also led a group of Winnebago County residents to file a lawsuit to block an ethanol plant near Rockford.
Reg Ankrom, project developer and spokesman for the Waverly plant, says three or four possible water sources are under consideration.
In mid-August, Ankrom approached the Jacksonville City Council but was rebuffed.
Another possibility is Springfield’s City Water, Light & Power.
“We contacted CWLP to talk about possible water supply for the plant, but I am unable to say anything further,” Ankrom says.
Tom Skelly, water-division manager for CWLP, says plant developers contacted the city-owned utility in July to discuss the possibility of supplying 2.2 million gallons of water per day.
“They requested information about the quantity, quality, reliability, and the cost associated with purchasing water from CWLP,” he says. “A detailed proposal was submitted.”
Skelly says CWLP is able to supply the water through a 20-mile pipeline to Waverly. “Obviously we can meet the demand, as long as the right infrastructure is in place,” he says.
Skelly says that the cost of building the pipeline will not affect Springfield taxpayers, and he dismisses speculation that CWLP’s proposal is related to the revival of the long-moribund Hunter Lake project or the utility’s response to Chatham’s move to maintain a separate water source.
“Those reasons are not considerations in CWLP’s proposal to Waverly,” Skelly says.
Waverly resident Dan Feezor is alarmed by Skelly’s statements.
“Lake Springfield is an ‘at-risk’ lake,” says Feezor, who runs Feezor Engineering in Chatham. “How can CWLP accommodate 2.2 million extra gallons of water per day?”
Feezor, who studied the hydrology of Lake Springfield, referred to a previous report by the Illinois State Water Survey assessing the lake’s drought yield.
“The average drought yield stood at 26.2 million gallons per day, and the average consumption was at 22 million gallons of water per day,” explains Feezor, “and, during drought, that number increases to 34 million gallons per day.”
“How can the lake sustain more consumption?” Feezor asks.
He speculates that even if plans for Hunter Lake are put into action immediately, it will still take three to four years before water becomes available.
“Springfield residents need to be wary,” he says. “This can soon become a countywide issue instead of just a Waverly matter.”
The recent spike in oil prices and government subsidies have fueled interest in ethanol production. More than 60 ethanol plants are being built across the country, with close to a dozen planned in Illinois. With the business expanding this quickly, it’s essential that somebody ask critical questions, Fedor says.
“We just want some reasonable explanation to our concerns,” he says. “We are faced with a multitude of issues. We have to endure the noise, the air and water pollution, the increased traffic and more, without any assurances from the developers. That jeopardizes our way of life, and we are trying to protect our interests.”
In Aberdeen, S.D., a group of locals like Fedor and his friends fought to stop an ethanol plant from being built in their town and took their concerns to the courts. They won.
Fedor says that perhaps with more people opening their eyes to the Waverly situation, the Citizens for Preservation of Rural Environment will find similar victory.
Until then, Fedor says, the group will press on.
“We are not willing to give up,” he says.
The county, Johnson Shuttle, and Waverly Ethanol have 30 days to respond to the lawsuit.
Manjula Batmanathan of Springfield is a former reporter for the Paris Beacon News. She has also written for The Sun of Kuala Lumpur and other publications in Singapore and Malaysia.