By Chris Berendt Staff Writer
March 14, 2014
Second of two parts
Gary Fine can smell it from half a mile away. It almost pushed him out of his house last summer and, on the bad days, he contemplates giving up his home altogether.
Fine’s summer place is located in the City of Fremont, which is nestled in Newaygo County, Michigan, home to a population of just over 4,000. Fremont is known as the “Baby Food Capital of the World” as Gerber Foods, originally known as the Fremont Canning Company, was founded there nearly 90 years ago by Daniel Frank Gerber.
Gerber still has a massive presence in the town where it began. Looking for a responsible, green way to dispose of its waste in an organic manner, the baby food behemoth, along with other waste producers, signed contracts a few years back with NOVI Energy, a company whose namesake town is about a three-hour drive east of Fremont.
With the backing of state and local officials, NOVI constructed the Fremont Community Digester, the first commercial-scale anaerobic digester in the nation. The 3-megawatt plant digests organic waste into bio-methane, which fuels engine-generators to generate renewable energy.
The plant was supported by Gerber, agriculture leaders and many in the community who looked at NOVI as a way of bringing jobs and tax base to the community, while providing an environmentally-friendly service.
Since the plant became operational roughly 16 months ago, however, the impact some residents in the small Michigan community are seeing is only negative. They said they are experiencing noise, odor and traffic, the trifecta of concerns that have been on the minds of many here in Clinton, where NOVI proposes to build the nation’s second digester, a 4.3-megawatt power plant nearly identical in design to Fremont’s — only bigger.
Contrary to the multiple feedstocks used at the Fremont digester, mostly hog waste would be used in Clinton. Since NOVI’s possible location was announced, many nearby Clinton residents and industry leaders who would be neighbors with the plant on Industrial Drive, Clinton, have voiced their opposition.
In recent weeks, NOVI has been out in the community holding meetings in an attempt to explain the plant’s operations and garner support for it. A trip to Michigan is planned for the end of the month so Sampsonians to become better acquainted with the Michigan operation leading up to an April 1 City Council public hearing, where NOVI’s request will be heard.
Fine recalled the same kind of community meetings in Fremont.
“When they came to our town, they gave us assurances there wouldn’t be much noise and no smell because of their system. We were worried about traffic because of the number of trucks it takes to fill those things and the use of the roads, and we were worried about the safety of having massive amounts of methane stored on-site,” Fine said, looking back.
NOVI president Anand Gangadharan, in addressing local concerns, said all feedstock unloading occurs indoors and all plant buildings are negatively pressurized to prevent odors from escaping the buildings. A bio-filter specifically engineered to scrub odors from the air also ensures any odors from within the plant do not escape outside. Additionally, transport of feedstock will occur in sealed or covered trucks and be fed directly into storage tanks from the tanker trucks.
“They built a really impressive-looking plant,” Fine said.
But he said large exhaust fans used to keep the smell down in the plant where the waste is off-loaded are loud.
“Go in your bathroom and it’s quiet, then turn on the fan — it’s like that on steroids,” said Fine. “It changes what quiet is. I like quiet. It is not quiet.”
Additionally, where power lines connect into the grid there is a distinctive and booming whirring sound as electrical current is flooded into the lines from the plant.
“You have electric lines now, but they’re not flowing with a significant amount of power,” Fine remarked. “This will change that, and you’ll hear this whirring sound of electrical current. That will never go away for those houses closest to where it connects.”
And the noise is one thing, but the smell is worse than that, he said.
“While I might be able to put up with the fans and the whirring, unfortunately they haven’t conquered the smell issue,” Fine said. “Depending on which way the wind blows, you’re going to smell basically a dump, and the dump is very close to home. That’s a problem.”
Unused methane is burned off and, occasionally, there is a flame that can be seen from the methane bubble that is as distinctive as NOVI’s two green tanks.
“You talk about a closed system and there should be no air leak, but there is. It has problems and it breaks down, and people suffer at different times when the plant is not operating correctly,” Fine stressed. “The stench can go on 10 days, two weeks before they finally get it under control or the wind blows another direction. Unless the wind is always blowing the same direction, it’s going to affect different people on different days, but they will be affected and it’s not in any way a kind odor.”
Fremont is a quaint town, and its population grows with many summer residents choosing to vacation at Fremont Lake as the weather gets warmer. Dotting the outskirts of Fremont Lake are numerous homes, and now the NOVI Energy digester.
Last summer, there was an intensive three-day period, where Fine’s family had to seal up windows. His home is about 800 or 900 yards away from the plant.
“For that to hit me it has to be pretty intense,” Fine remarked. “We got through the night and the wind changed. If it didn’t, we would have had to move out of our home and go to a hotel somewhere. It was that oppressive. You’re hiding in your home, hoping the smell dissipates outside.”
And there are plenty of people who live even closer, including Darrell Crawford.
“It’s not a bed of roses,” Crawford said simply. “I don’t think it’s done anything for the community so far, other than make a mess and smell.”
There were public hearings in Fremont, which hundreds of people attended to share their concerns, but by the time it was put to the public, it was a foregone conclusion, he said.
“It was just rubber-stamped,” Crawford noted. “Our problem was we heard about it when it was too late. They already had all the approvals from the state and local government.”
There was “resounding” opposition, which is still very much present, Fine said.
A group of community residents, including Fine, Crawford and others, even gathered funding to hire attorneys to try and stop the digester, however they were able only to reduce the height of the digester tanks in size from the initial 80 feet down to 40 feet, which Fine noted was still a positive feat. Those digesters, while much smaller, still tower over nearby homes, he said. (The digester tanks for Clinton are proposed at 65 feet).
“It was going through no matter what we did,” said Crawford. “I think we had two public meetings, there were a lot of negatives on it and it didn’t make any difference. It definitely didn’t improve our community, as far as I’m concerned.”
‘A great idea, but…’
Of Newaygo County’s 230 natural lakes, Fremont Lake is the largest.
“We live on the largest lake in the county and the plant is within a quarter-mile of the lake and we raised a stink that any spillage out of there is going to kill the lake,” said Crawford, a Fremont resident for 30 years. “The lake has a lot of summer residents. The lake is the biggest attraction of Fremont. It’s a big draw. The people who live on the lake were reluctant to think it (the plant) was a plus because … if that goes away, Fremont doesn’t have an attraction anymore.”
John Payne, another Fremont citizen, was adamantly against the adverse impact the plant could have, Crawford noted. He lives almost directly across from the plant. Since the plant’s location a mere football field away, he has had to put extra insulation on his home and often leaves his stereo on a low level in an attempt to drown out the noise from the plant.
NOVI officials have noted a slight hum that can only be heard at the plant, but Fremont residents said that is not true.
“Anybody that lives closer than I do has a horrible time sleeping at night because of the noise coming out of the plant, whether it is the equipment running or the generators,” Crawford attested.
“It’s a great idea, but putting it near people is mean,” Fine remarked, “because there should be a better way. If you stick it somewhere a mile out (from anybody) where it blows lousy smells, nobody cares. It’s making methane, it’s making electricity, it gets rid of all the waste. There are a lot of great things about the plant, it just shouldn’t be near anyone. My feeling is that it takes down home values and it takes down the standard of living of the people who live around it.”
At the proposed plant in Clinton, there will be a natural buffer and the nearest homes are a quarter of a mile away.
“It’s great that there are trees, but they’re not going to stop the wind and the smell,” Fine noted.
Many of the Clinton residents have shared the same concern. They said they are not against the plant, but cannot get behind its proposed location.
Jim Zimmer, NOVI’s site manager for N.C. development projects, said that is not an uncommon reaction, but noted there is “no such thing as the middle of nowhere” to move a plant. “No matter what, something is always near somebody,” Zimmer said.
Fine said that is not really true, especially when talking about rural counties.
“(Fremont) is a place our family has visited for 20 years,” Fine noted. “We love this little rural place to get away from everything, then the digester came.”
While the plant in Fremont has been in operation for more than a year, NOVI continues to reach out to those Fremont neighbors for feedback, Zimmer noted. There are growing pains as with any operation, he said, and NOVI has attempted to learn and improve with each day.
“We continue to communicate with them,” Zimmer said of Fremont residents. “We stay in touch with them and we want feedback from them. Being a good neighbor is important to us.”
And it’s not always bad, Fine said.
“To be fair, there are days you can’t smell what’s going on there. I’m not trying to paint a picture that every day you’re driving by a dump, but it happens more than you like it to,” he said. “And if it’s intense, you have to move. You won’t want to stay and suck that into your nostrils.”
The men said they know the benefits and potential of the plant, but the negative effects on local properties cannot be ignored, even if you try.
“The concerns are real,” said Fine. “In an agricultural community, it provides a wonderful opportunity for problems to be solved in getting rid of these solid wastes. It surprised me they would want to go back into this same exact problem and put it on the poor people who don’t have a choice with their homes nearby.”
“Most of the neighborhood thought ‘wow, this is going to be great for the community’ — they had all kinds of pluses for it, we have not seen those yet,” Crawford added. “At this point, unless they make some big changes, it’s not going to be a plus for our community.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.