Another hearing ordered for proposed ethanol plant

By Gabriel Monte: CNJ staff writer

A plan to build an ethanol plant on the edge of Clovis has met another obstacle.

Environmental Improvement Board members voted 4 to 1 Monday to order the state Environment Department to hold a hearing within 60 days to take any new evidence on whether ConAgra Trade Group should be allowed to build the plant.

A hearing officer would make yet another recommendation about the permit to Environment Secretary Ron Curry.

EIB members said they were concerned Clovis residents had been misled about the plant’s location.

Citizens’ groups fighting construction of the plant had appealed to the EIB after the Environment Department issued an air quality permit for the facility.

Clovis Ethanol, which would produce 108 million gallons of ethanol a year, would be built on property where ConAgra operates a grain elevator along U.S. 60/84 just west of city limits, according to ConAgra Foods officials.

Blake Prather, vice president for the Concerned Citizens of Curry County, which also consists of the Clovis chapters of the NAACP and the League of United Latin American Citizens, called the decision a “step in the right direction.”

“We’ll just continue our fight. Hopefully in the new hearing we can present new evidence that can maybe sway their decision,” Prather said.

ConAgra Foods spokesperson Stephanie Childs said the company will continue to work with state environmental agencies.

“Before the plant can be built, we need our permit,” she said. “We will be working with the appropriate individuals including (Cabinet) Secretary (Ron) Curry to determine the next step.”

In addition to improperly identifying the location of the plant, the citizens group says it’s location is too close to mostly Hispanic and black neighborhoods, subjecting those residents to hazards from pollutants. They say that’s inconsistent with an environmental justice executive order signed in 2005 by Gov. Bill Richardson.

“At this point, I’m not sure whether it’s a victory or not,” said New Mexico Environmental Law Center attorney R. Bruce Frederick, who represented the citizens group during the September appeal hearing. He said the groups would present new evidence at a hearing.

EIB member Gregory Green — who said he was concerned “how we trust people with the big stuff when they don’t get the small stuff right” — made the motion to send the matter back to the department.

Ethanol plant representatives said during the appeal hearing that the location of the plant was not brought up as an issue during earlier public meetings.

Letters that went out in 2006 to some residents, as well as radio and print notices, described the location as three miles west of Clovis. ConAgra officials said they meant three miles of the city’s center.

The EIB is also requiring additional modeling from the trade group to include emissions from trains, according to Environment Department Communication Director Marissa Stone. She said initial modeling was taken from emissions information from Roswell, which has an air quality monitoring station.

“The EIB wanted additional information more specific to Clovis,” she said. “There are many more trains that pass through Clovis than Roswell.”

If the air quality permit is approved, Prather said the group would file an appeal in the New Mexico Court of Appeals.

—The Associated Press Contributed to this report.