Judge hears arguments to overturn approval of ethanol plant near Eyota

(Article by Laura Horihan published by Rochester Post Bulletin)

Olmsted District Court on Monday seeking to overturn local approval of the proposed project near Eyota.

The suit, which was filed June 2, 2009, names MinnErgy LLC, Olmsted County and the county board, and landowners Stephen C. VonWald and the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad as defendants.

Plaintiffs include the Olmsted County Concerned Citizens group, Minnesota Trout Association, local and state organizations of Trout Unlimited and 27 named individuals.

In the lawsuit, the April 28, 2009 county board decision to grant MinnErgy’s zoning request is described as “arbitrary, capricious and contrary to law.”

During a court hearing Monday afternoon, attorney for the plaintiffs, Patrick Hynes argued that the county board failed to address negative findings of fact adopted by the county’s Planning Advisory Commission when it recommended the county board deny the MinnErgy plans.

Hynes argued that the county’s own zoning ordinance requires that six findings of fact must be included at the time of the vote.

Hynes asked Judge Joseph Chase to “look at these findings and see if the county board has a reasonable basis. Our opinion is that they aren’t reasonable findings and that the zoning change should be overturned.”

The county board approved the zoning change at the end of a four-hour meeting on a 4-3 vote.

According to the lawsuit, the board approved a set of affirmative findings on May 12, two weeks after approving the zone change.

Hynes said county board members are required to give their rationale for their decision when the vote is taken.

Attorney for Olmsted County, John Baker, argued that recorded testimony during the county board meeting is sufficient evidence of the board’s rationale.

Chase listened to the defendant’s rebuttal and then chose to take the case under advisement.

It could be a few months before a decision is made.

MinnErgy will still have to go through a conditional-use permit process before they build the plant.

Earlier this year, Judge Chase dismissed a lawsuit filed by the citizens group against the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and MinnErgy.

The citizens’s group was challenging the MPCA’s decision to not require an environmental impact statement.

The citizen’s group filed an appeal on March 22 and that case will likely go to the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

Our Take:
It is legitimate and understandable for citizens near Eyota to challenge any large industrial development, ethanol included, and to want a full investigation into the implications for the area’s water resources and its impact on the environment.

 

The bottom line in this court challenge is whether ethanol will be held to a different, more difficult, standard than other industries in our state, and if so, is that fair?

 

The Department of Natural Resources has made a full investigation into the MinnErgy project—they have treated the MinnErgy ethanol plant as they would any other industrial development in the state, and they gave MinnErgy a greenlight. As with any industry, the greenlight is conditional—the plant has to operate within given parameters, and its effect on aquifer levels must remain within set limits, in order for the plant to remain in operation. The plant would be a huge boondoggle if it cannot do so, because the state will shut it down in such a case. MinnErgy’s owners know that. They will work hard to comply, as that is the only option.

 

We foresee the eventual victory of MinnErgy in the court case, but we also see a broader opportunity. MinnErgy should elect to go above and beyond any federal and state requirements. Should it’s right to build be upheld, it should invest in the development of state-of-the–art systems that minimize environmental impact to an even greater extent than ethanol plants being built today—and that’s an enviable standard for limiting the environmental footprint. Ethanol plants have already been built that have zero wastewater releases—the only way to do that is to be incredibly efficient in recycling water through the plant multiple times.

 

In order for the benefit of ethanol to be enjoyed by all the residents in the MinnErgy neighborhood, the plant should undertake this quest. It’s achievement in that case, would become a new standard for the ethanol industry.

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