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No significant environmental concerns over ethanol plant expansion in Granite

GRANITE FALLS -- Plans by Granite Falls Energy to expand its ethanol production capacity from 49.9 million to 70 million gallons per year raise no significant environmental issues, according to a recently completed environmental assessment worksheet.

No concerns about the project were voiced by people attending a public hearing on the assessment hosted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on Monday evening in Granite Falls. The project remains open to public comment through Jan. 26, according to Steve Sommer, project manager with the MPCA.

Representatives from the boards of commissioners for Chippewa and Yellow Medicine counties and the city of Granite Falls told the MPCA that they support the expansion. "It has been a trouble-free operation from a community standpoint,'' said Mayor Dave Smiglewski of Granite Falls.

The ethanol company is planning to install a wide range of new equipment at its plant near Granite Falls to expand production by 40 percent. The improvements will allow it to handle and process larger volumes of corn and other feedstock for ethanol production, and to improve efficiencies.

Improvements to the water system will allow it to reuse more of the water, including storm water collected on site, according to information provided at the meeting. The improvements mean the company will actually reduce the amount of process water it discharges into Hawk Creek as part of its operations. The discharge water contains no byproducts of processing, according to Sommer.

The expansion will increase air emissions, but they will continue to meet state and federal requirements, he said.

The company will increase its overall use of water, but its usage still is well below its permitted amount. The company has a permit to tap the Minnesota River for up to 250 million gallons of water per year, but usage is about one-half that level.

The company has expressed concerns about plans by Xcel Energy to remove the Minnesota Falls dam, which creates a reservoir where the ethanol plant obtains its water from the Minnesota River. The company's appropriation permit for river water is based on the sustainability of the water source, and not the reservoir. Whether the dam is there or not is irrelevant to the permit which is tied directly to the volume of river flows, according to representatives of the state Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in it's Division of Ecological and Water Resources.

The plant is seeking to increase the amount of corn feedstock it uses from 540,000 tons to 750,000 tons per year. It is also seeking permission to use other feedstock -- molasses and off-spec sugar -- if they are available.

The plant currently employs 38 people, and would increase its staffing by one as a result of the expansion, according to information at the hearing.

Once the new equipment is installed, the company would likely increase ethanol production incrementally over time to reach the capacity level of 70 million gallons per year, according to information that plant manager and CEO Tracey Olson provided to local government units last week.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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