Q&A: Ethanol manager confident of plant safety

Kirk Johnson is the manager of the proposed Clovis Ethanol plant. The son of a dairy farmer, Johnson has worked for ConAgra for 24 years and grew up in a small community in southern Minnesota.

Q: At what stage is Clovis Ethanol in the air permit process?
(Clovis Ethanol was originally supposed to have the permit Nov. 17.) That was delayed because they (the New Mexico Environment Department) were looking at some additional technical information. They pushed that date back trying to gather information and make sure that everybody is being heard, and that all the possible questions that they had… they be able to fill in the blanks. The state had not, as of Wednesday, set a date (for issue of the permit).
We are looking at maybe some place prior to the holidays.

Q:Construction of the plant was originally set to begin in October. How does ConAgra feel about being behind schedule?
It’s an opportunity that we are really missing. Having the air permit is just one step to having a plant. These things never move as quickly as you would like.
Once you get your air permit, it follows into a construction permit. That step has to be done before you can get to that.

Q: There have been several visits to ethanol plants by Clovis officials. Do you believe the plants visited are comparable to the plant proposed for Clovis?
Every plant is different. Clovis (officials that visited plants) picked out a plant that was in town; they also picked out a plant that was going to be the same size as us that was on the edge of town. The plant that the (August) group went to visit was probably in a more remote area, but those are plants that have the new emission controls and they are plants that have thermal oxidizers that burn off the odors. I believe that at all three locations there was a very faint feed smell. Whether you are out in the country or whether you are in town, it’s the same issue.

Q: Can you address the health and odor concerns of those that live closest to the plant?
As some of the people that went to visit the other plants have communicated, other communities have not seen the issues. They might have had concerns early, but the plants that have been visited did not have the odors that have been talked about in some of the papers. The new technologies that capture emissions and burn off some of the odors will greatly reduce and alleviate those concerns that the people have. We hope to show (in a Thursday meeting) that the health standards that are set by the U.S. EPA are set to protect the primary groups of people, which is the elderly, the young, those who are the most susceptible to illness… That those standards are set at limits that we have to maintain, that we will be permitted and have to be monitored at a later date to make sure we don’t go over.

Q: Explain the demand for ethanol.
The state of New Mexico, at a 10 percent blend (of ethanol and gasoline), would have demand for over a 100 million gallons of ethanol (annually). The Portales plant produces 30 million. As New Mexico develops their blending, there is production available (to meet) the governor’s mandate of 10 percent (blend of ethanol and gasoline), and (his) goal of 15 percent on some of the state vehicles as he moves forward.
Several states continue to increase (their renewable fuel standards). The federal government, with their renewable fuel standards, have pushed certain percentages of blends to maintain and a lot of state governments are mandating over and above the (federal government’s) 10 percent (blend).

Q: What is ConAgra’s relationship with the Clovis Industrial Development Corp.?
ConAgra Trade Group — along with New Hope Partners, (LLC.) a co-developer of the project — met with the industrial development group earlier in the summer (and began) working on the project.

Q: How would this plant benefit the city of Clovis?
It is a great economic development for the city. We will be bringing substantial tax revenue to the city and to the county and to the state. Over a 10-year period, it will bring $20 million dollars (in taxes) to the city and the county.

Q: Some ethanol plants in America projected certain emissions levels, but in operation, exceeded their projections, according to EPA studies. What will Clovis Ethanol do to avoid that?
Roughly, in 2001, thermal oxidizers were developed to recapture the emissions and to reduce the odors (involved in the production of ethanol). The plants that are being built today have that technology and the ability to control those emissions.
Some of the plants that are older, technology has improved on the (ethanol-making) process using enzymes…, and they’ve gotten more production out of their plants than they originally permitted. That new technology and that new efficiency have been put into our permit process to accommodate that.

Q: Would Clovis Ethanol consider operating at another site in Clovis?
Clovis was picked for several different reasons. We have ample land to develop this project.
The majority of grain elevators, older elevators, that you would try to co-develop that are in town, you do not have the land availability. The land availability is at the edge of Clovis. We have an existing business (Peavey Co. West grain handling facility) that has been here for 18 years and is growing along with your dairy demand. It only makes sense for us as we look for opportunities to move the additional feed product coming from ethanol that you put it in a spot with demand from dairy and or beef. Those are a couple of the reasons that Clovis makes sense. Also, it is next to (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) railroad.
Being at our location, we do not see a negative impact for the people that live in that community. Not all (ethanol plant) locations are that close to towns. But the ones that have been have proven that they can co-exist in a community.
My message simply is…, we believe there is not going to be a health impact based on the standards that we have to abide by, it’s been a good business and growing business ,and it’s in the location that we want to develop, and (has) economic benefits. We will be a solid company that wants to be part of this community and we will be a good corporate environmental citizen. We will help the quality of life as far as contributing a tax base to help the city build additional parks to help maintain those parks, whether you live on the north side or whether you live on the west side.

— Compiled by CNJ staff writer Marlena Hartz

Editor’s note: Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity and brevity.