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Earthtech ends plans for biofuel plant near Civic Center

WILLMAR -- Earthtech Energy of Shoreview has discontinued developing plans for a proposed agricultural biofuel pelletizing plant in northeast Willmar near Civic Center Drive and the Highway 71/23 bypass.

WILLMAR -- Earthtech Energy of Shoreview has discontinued developing plans for a proposed agricultural biofuel pelletizing plant in northeast Willmar near Civic Center Drive and the Highway 71/23 bypass.

Earthtech Energy President Gregg Mast made the announ-cement in a letter sent this week to Willmar City Planning and Development Services Dir-ector Bruce Peterson.

Mast mailed a copy of the letter to the Tribune.

Mast said two factors led the company to determine that a "capital investment for the project at this specific site is economically unfavorable at this time.''

First, Mast cited unanticipated delays and the length of time necessary to annex and rezone 55 acres of land and to obtain a conditional use permit, along with 17 conditions attached to the permit by the Board of Zoning Appeals.

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Second, Mast said that although the company was capable of complying with the 17 conditions, Earthtech "will continue to explore other alternatives that may prove more suitable for the company's needs.''

In an interview, Mast said the company was "somewhat taken aback'' by the length of time required to obtain the permit for the Civic Center Drive site. He said Earthtech wants a site that will provide some flexibility.

"There were quite a few constraints and limitations imposed with the 17 conditions,'' he said. "We didn't want to lock ourselves into any type of agreement as our needs change over time.''

But Mast said he'll continue to look at opportunities presented within Kandiyohi County and Willmar.

"We have not made any significant decisions as far as another specific site,'' he said Friday. "We are evaluating our options at this point.''

Mast said the plant would have been the first large-scale biofuel pelletizing operation in Minnesota. He said Willmar was selected because it's a leading area for renewable energy development and because feedstocks were abundant within a 90-mile radius. He declined to identify the feedstocks.

The plant site was opposed by the Willmar School District, which was concerned about potential conflict between truck traffic and students driving on Civic Center Drive to the high school; and by MinnWest Technology Campus, which was concerned about dust problems.

Others, including homebuilder Warren Erickson, president of Energy Concepts of Willmar, said the industrial use was not compatible with nearby residential areas. Erickson's Trentwood residential development is located about one-quarter of a mile southwest of the plant site.

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"It would be nice for Kandiyohi County if they still come in, but not at that site,'' said Erickson. "I, like the school and MinnWest representatives, still feel it was not the best location by any means because of the issues brought up by us and other concerned citizens.''

The site had been designated industrial reserve before it was annexed and rezoned industrial by the City Council. One reason Earthtech selected the site was the availability of a nearby railroad spur for shipments.

The Tribune asked Mast if Earthtech had reached agreement with Burlington Northern Santa Fe to use the spur.

"We continue to evaluate the rail accessibility,'' he said. "We would need capital improvement costs at that location, which we were aware of.''

Now that Earthtech won't be using the site, it's possible the land could be rezoned for residential purposes, according to Peterson. He said the Planning Commission at a recent work session discussed the possibility of designating the land as something other than industrial in the revised comprehensive plan.

"There are a couple of different options there,'' he said. "It all comes back to the City Council with Planning Commission recommendations. If the comprehensive plan is approved, the zoning would remain industrial until it's actually rezoned, and the Planning Commission might make that recommendation to re-designate and rezone it at the same time.''

Peterson said he wants the project to happen in the Willmar area, and he said more emphasis will be placed on alternative energy sources, such as biofuels.

Steve Renquist, executive director of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission, said the project is not dead.

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"We just go back to the drawing boards, and we're going to try and make this happen,'' he said. "The renewable resource industry is the industry of the future. I'm certain this is a good company for somewhere. We're going to just try and make sure that's in Kandiyohi County.''

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