ConAgra procures air permit

CNJ staff

SANTA FE — ConAgra officials learned Tuesday they can move forward with plans to build a $175 million ethanol plant west of Clovis.

New Mexico Environment Department Secretary Ron Curry’s approval of the plant’s air quality construction permit was the final step before construction can begin at a grain handling facility ConAgra operates along U.S. 84.

“I granted the permit based on detailed reports and the record,” Curry said. “I expect the company to be a good neighbor and comply with its permit conditions.”

Clovis Ethanol Director of Operations Kirk Johnson said construction would take 18 to 21 months. He said it was premature to talk about a starting date for the plant, which will produce 108 million gallons of ethanol a year from corn to be used as a fuel additive.

A coalition of organizations, called Concerned Citizens for Curry County, objects to the planned location of the plant, saying it’s too close to neighborhoods and schools that have a heavily low-income and minority population.

The residents want Gov. Bill Richardson to intervene. They contend the plant’s location runs counter to an “environmental justice” executive order signed by the governor in 2005, which is intended to ensure poor people and minorities aren’t exposed to greater environmental and pollution threats than other Americans.

Blake Prather, the coalition’s vice president, said the group expects to appeal the department’s permit decision to the state Environmental Improvement Board.

ConAgra and NMED’s Air Quality Bureau submitted a joint stipulation that addressed many concerns raised by citizens, including stack height, compliance testing and dust control from the facility, according to the Hearing Officer’s Report for the permit. The stipulation provides for an increase of stack heights from 50 to 100 feet at the plant to further disburse emissions from the facility.

The report also requires that the Peavey facility include paved haul roads at the location to provide further dust control.

ConAgra must also meet with citizens to provide information about plant operations and emissions twice a year for the first five years the plant is open.

“It’s obviously been a long process,” Johnson said. “We added some of the stipulations to address the concerns in the community.

“We want to be a good neighbor. We’re going to be working at the plant and living in the area.”

The plant is expected to create 200 to 250 construction jobs and 50 more permanent positions.

ConAgra must also submit an application to the department for a groundwater discharge permit. The permit is necessary for any wastewater generated at the plant, including processing wastewater from operations there.

Residents will be able to participate in the groundwater discharge permit process.

In a letter sent to Richardson this month, the coalition urged the governor to support an alternative location for the ethanol plant several miles outside of Clovis near an existing cheese factory.

The group suggested establishing a “green zone,” which would serve as a central location for the ethanol plant and other possible renewable energy projects considering the Clovis area such as biodiesel plants.

Richardson, as governor and now as a Democratic presidential candidate, advocates increased use of renewable energy sources such as ethanol to help reduce the nation’s dependence on imported oil.

—The Associated Press contributed to this report