Missouri Town Raising a Stink over Biofuel Plant

Residents of Carthage, Mo., were so offended by the nauseating smell coming from a biofuel plant that Missouri's governor closed it down. Now the plant is set to reopen with modifications, and the plant's operators say they're doing everything they can to eliminate the most noxious odors.

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Ethanol and biodiesel plants are springing up around the country, especially in agricultural areas. With federal subsidies, these plants help turn crops into cash. People in Carthage, Missouri were thrilled at first when the facility opened there that turns turkey waste products into fuel oil. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, people in Carthage now know that with biofuels there can be drawbacks.

GREG ALLEN, reporting:

Like many small towns, Carthage in Missouri's southwest corner, has had to work hard in recent years to remain vital. It's been helped by its history. There's a 19th century courthouse and a Civil War museum. Carthage was the sight of one of the first skirmishes of the Civil War. Today its town square is lined with antique stores and coffee shops. But as shop owner H.J. Johnson says, it also recently acquired something else, a terrible, some say unbearable, odor.

Mr. H.J. JOHNSON (Shop owner, Carthage): Customers would come inside because they couldn't stand to be outside and didn't want to go back out, and would be covering their mouth and their eyes would be watering. I mean it's bad. Just rank and you can almost feel it, it's so thick.

ALLEN: In 2004 a company called Renewable Environmental Solutions came to Carthage with a big idea. It proposed building a plant next to the Butterball processing facility that would take the feathers, bones, and other turkey waste and using something called thermal conversion process, turn it into fuel oil.

Johnson says the odor problem began as soon as the plant opened. Carthage is a rural community not unused to barnyard smells. But he says this stench cast a pall over the whole town.

Mr. H. J. JOHNSON: Tourism is a fair factor in the economy, especially the downtown. So it's more than just an annoyance, it also has real economic impact on the community.

ALLEN: The company logged the complaints and said it was working to fix the problem. But last year state and city officials ran out of patience. They went to court asking a judge to declare the plant a public nuisance. In December, Missouri Governor Matt Blunt finally ordered the plant shut down before it damaged the town's tourism and job growth. After weeks of work and two million dollars in new odor control equipment, company CEO Brian Appel held a news conference last week to say the smell is gone.

Mr. BRIAN APPEL (CEO, Renewable Environmental Solutions): We believe the problem is 100 percent solved.

ALLEN: There's a lot at stake here in Carthage, and not just for the town. Thermal conversion technology attempts to copy the Earth's natural geothermal process where over millions of years organic materials subjected to extreme heat and pressure is converted to fossil fuel. RES says by controlling temperature and pressure it can turn almost any organic material into oil in just a few hours.

It's the modern equivalent of turning lead into gold. Taking troublesome waste and converting it into valuable fuel oil. It's a technology that also has the federal government's interest. It contributed 14 million dollars of the plant's 50 million dollar price tag. Walking around the biofuel plant, RES Vice President Don Sanders points to the redundant systems now put in place to handle its odor problem: ozone scrubbers, negative air pressure inside the building, and a large furnace, the thermal oxidizer.

Mr. DON SANDERS (Vice President, Renewable Environmental Solutions): That basically has over two seconds of retention time at 1400 degrees Fahrenheit. So, it destroys 99.96 percent of any odorous compounds that go through it.

ALLEN: For the past month the Renewable Environmental Solutions plant has been doing limited runs, testing its equipment. Although, there have been a few odor complaints, residents say the air appears to be much improved. One reason the smell has been such a problem here in Carthage is that the plant's location is far from ideal, just a few blocks from the historic downtown.

But despite the problems, many in Carthage are still pulling for the plant. It's already brought 60 jobs to town and if it's successful people say they expect the new technology will begin attracting visitors from around the world. Carthage Mayor Kenneth Johnson remains a strong supporter, but says he'll hold the company to a commitment it made to the town before the plant opened.

Mayor KENNETH JOHNSON (Carthage, Missouri): The commitment was that they'd be odor free.

ALLEN: What do you think? Is that possible?

Mayor JOHNSON: I'm hoping. There's still hope.

ALLEN: When the RES plant was first proposed many in Carthage thought it sounded like science fiction. Something that was too good to be true. There are questions about whether it can be done on a large scale, and about the project's long-term economic feasibility. The company won't disclose its production costs, but says it is competitive with crude oil and that plans are underway for a second plant. The company can't begin to address those questions, though, until it first shows that it can take the stink out of its production process. Greg Allen, NPR News.

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