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$55M St. Croix County manure facility project raises stink among residents

A proposal to construct a manure processing facility in the town of Pleasant Valley drew a packed room at Thursday, Jan. 24, at the St. Croix County Government Center. Mike Longaecker / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
The red line depicts the site for the proposed Western Wisconsin Biogas and Nutrient Recovery Project in the town of Pleasant Valley. Image courtesy of St. Croix County2 / 2

The fate of a proposed $55 million St. Croix County manure processing plant was placed in a holding pattern after a meeting where residents raised concerns about the project.

Several neighbors of the proposed Western Wisconsin Biogas and Nutrient Recovery Project voiced opposition to the prospect of odors, truck volume and other issues Thursday, Jan. 25, while proponents described plans as a boon to the regional agriculture industry.

The St. Croix County Board of Adjustment tabled action on the project, which the panel's chairman said could hinge on its impact on property values. If project officials can't resolve that issue, "you stand a high risk of being turned down," Board of Adjustment Chairman Buck Malick told the applicant, Agri-Waste Energy President Ray Davy.

The board gave Davy a list of additional items — including an odor management plan, noise levels and decommissioning cost assurances — to be addressed before the project is reconsidered in April.

The Western Wisconsin Biogas and Nutrient Recovery Project, to be located at 1768 County Road Z in the town of Pleasant Valley, would truck in manure from local dairy farms and turkey litter that would be processed at the approximately 50-acre site, comprised of multiple buildings and waste digesters. Plans calls for manure to be converted into natural gas that would be piped about four miles away to Northern Natural Gas in Baldwin.

The plant, to be operated by Denmark-based Xergi, would also produce liquid and dry fertilizer products that would be trucked away and sold. Local farms that contribute dairy manure to the facility would have liquid fertilizer returned to those sites, where officials say they could be applied to farmland more efficiently.

Plans call for a second liquid fertilizer product that would be returned to the John De farm, where it would be placed in a lagoon for future farm application. Though the application states John De “will be the ‘lead’ dairy farm” in the project, one of that farm’s three owners said it has not inked a deal.

John De co-owner Mikayla McGee said after the meeting that the farm is on a “wait and see” basis and that “we definitely have not signed anything.”

The project site's landowner, Bruce Moll, filed the conditional-use permit in January 2018. Davy is the agent for the project. The proposal was recommended for approval by St. Croix County land-use staff.

"The proposed solution will eliminate complaints from surrounding property owners regarding manure odor," the applicants wrote, saying participating farms "may become more valuable" due to a reduction of odor and complaints that normally stem from the conventional application of manure to land.

So far only one farm, John De, has signed onto the project. Davy said at the meeting that others will adjust their operations and climb aboard once they see the benefits that could be found.

"We think that as this thing develops, and they can see one example of what it has done, other dairies will fall in," Davy told the board.

Turkey litter is proposed to come from the Jennie-O Turkey Store in Barron, which saw its contract to haul turkey waste to a Minnesota facility end in 2018. The company has shipped about 100,000 tons of waste annually, according to the permit application.

"They're chomping at the bit" to get started, Davy said at the meeting.

The application states all loading and unloading of material would be handled inside a "nutrient recovery building" at the facility.

The project proposes what the applicants call a "game changer" aspect, which will address odor control and air quality through a five-step process developed by a Stillwater-based firm.

The process calls for the plant to separate solid from liquid manure. The solid component would be processed in an anaerobic digester and converted into natural gas. The liquid portion would be trucked back to farms, where it would be placed in a liquid-only lagoon.

"The liquid fertilizer with no odorous solids still contains high value nitrogen and micro-nutrients," according the proposal, which says the liquid product could then be applied via center-pivot and spray-gun irrigators rather than hoses.

Plans call for 11 features on the facility, including a 32,292 square-foot waste reception building and a 31,378 square-foot nutrient recovery building. The tallest structures would be six digesters that each stand about 90 feet high.

Moll's application states no water treatment facilities will be necessary at the plant since all post-processing material will be hauled away. A septic system will be on site, he stated in the application.

Concerns, support

About 50 people packed the county board room at the St. Croix County Government Center, where Davy and his business associates outlined the project. County officials said the project has support of former Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Sheila Harsdorf, along with the Dairy Business Association and the Nature Conservancy.

On the other side was a letter from the town of Pleasant Valley issued the previous day in opposition to the project.

Lisa Holmgren said she and her family live about a quarter-mile from the proposed facility. She said the prospect of 160 daily truck visits — the number established by the county's highway department — was among her concerns, along with odors that would be produced.

"No one can actually guarantee us there will be no odor," she said. That's true, said Chuck McGinley, technical director of St. Croix Sensory and a consultant for the project on odor control. There is no expectation the facility would be odor-free, he said.

"That's just not possible," McGinley said.

Others raised concerns about wetlands located in and around the project site. Plans show infrastructure on the site would not impede on small wetlands within it, though the Board of Adjustment was awaiting final analysis from the Department of Natural Resources to confirm that.

Still, town of Pleasant Valley resident Olaf Wick said he's concerned about the impact the facility could have in the Kinnickinnic River watershed.

"This is a huge threat," he said. Wick and Holmgren both raised questions about the project's impact on property values.

"So my question is, what's it going to do to my value? What's it going to do my family," Wick asked. "It doesn't belong there."

Holmgren said she never would have bought her house if she'd know such a project could be in the offing.

"Would you buy that house? Just think about it," she said.

Others voiced support.

St. Croix County Board Supervisor Tom Coulter said the project encourages a more constructive use of agriculture waste.

"I know a lot of regions would be very happy to have this facility in their neighborhood," he said.

Fellow Supervisor Judy Achterhof called the project offers a "viable, proven solution."

Former Kinnickinnic River Land Trust Interim President David Drewiske called the project a "complicated issue," but one he's come to support. He acknowledged that while the plant would be situated near the headwaters of the Kinnickinnic and Rush rivers, it is designed for minimum impact.

The project would be in the best interest of the watershed in the long term, he said, though he acknowledged it's unpopular among its would-be neighbors.

"It's got to be in someone's backyard," Drewiske said, "and that's an unfortunate thing."

Steven Schalla of Bomaz Farms said he's taking a wait-and-see approach, though he said he has many of the same questions as others who would live near the project. He said he would consider the benefit the plant could bring to the new fertilizer products in forming a position.

For now, he said "we're going to play Switzerland a little bit."

The Board of Adjustment will reconsider the Western Wisconsin Biogas and Nutrient Recovery Project at its April 25 meeting. Regardless of the outcome, Malick said the board's decision will likely be appealed in St. Croix County Circuit Court.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is a regional/enterprise reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage includes St. Croix County government, higher education and state politics in Wisconsin. 

(651) 301-7867