By Sam Jack
A Sumner County Planning Commission hearing on a proposed $100 million biogas plant drew more than 150 people to the Raymond Frye Complex in Wellington last Wednesday, Aug. 15.
Thanks to a lengthy agenda and the number of people who wanted to speak, the meeting concluded at 10:30 p.m. with no vote to approve or deny the zoning permissions VNACorp needs in order to proceed with the project. The hearing will continue when the planning commission next meets, Sept. 26 at 7:30 p.m.
While a handful of people at the meeting spoke about the economic benefits of the plant – which VNACorp says would employ more than 200 people and provide a new income stream for farmers, along with new tax dollars for Sumner County – the great majority of those in attendance were there to urge the planning commission to vote “No.”
Concerns included environmental impacts and potential disruption of the quiet, rural character of the area. By the height of wheat straw harvest season in 2021, up to 100 large trucks could enter and leave the biogas plant site, four miles south of Peck, each day.
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Greg Northrup, president of VNACorp, told planning commission members that the plant would use crop residues such as wheat straw and corn stover to produce compressed natural gas. Similar plants have operated in Germany for years without serious incident, he noted.
“We will operate the plant in a way that’s safe,” he said. “We’ll build it in a way that complies with the insurance company requirements for these types of facilities.”
Unlike other biofuel processes, the anaerobic digestion the Sumner County plant will employ does not produce any odor, according to VNACorp.
“(Anaerobic digestion) is no different than what a cow does. It’s about that simple,” Northrup said.
The renewable natural gas the plant produces would be injected into a nearby natural gas pipeline, where it would mix with compressed natural gas from fossil sources.
Concerns about water came up during the meeting. VNACorp would use 50 million to 100 million gallons of water per year and is seeking groundwater rights from the Kansas Water Office. VNA also wants to use the Ninnescah River as a backup water source.
Fifty to 100 million gallons sounds like a lot, Sumner County Rural Water District No. 5 manager Keith Leddy said during the public comment period, but it is equivalent to the amount of water used by one or two center-pivot irrigation systems.
“Just our water district takes 30 million gallons per year,” Leddy said. “The water sounds like a lot, but it’s not a lot.”
The meeting concluded with a half-hour presentation by Doug Hisken, a certified crop advisor. Hisken said he was there to “speak for the soil.” He presented data that he said pointed to a dire future for the soil in this area if farmers are induced to sell their crop residues.
“The process of biomass energy production is a mining operation of our precious topsoil. Soil is a living organism, depending on millions of interactions to provide food for humans. The key to these interactions is carbon,” Hisken said. He went on to argue that removing crop residues could reduce carbon in the soil, and therefore damage the soil’s fertility.
After the meeting, Rand Dueweke of VNACorp said that was bad science.
“Plants get their carbon from carbon dioxide in the air, which they breathe in through their leaves – not from the soil,” Dueweke said. “We’re returning humus (to farmers), which has all the nutrients, and maybe 30 to 40 percent of the carbon anyways. (Humus) retains water for a much longer period of time.
“We’re going to defeat all these arguments, because it’s just not sound science. We do this in Germany, and the farmers love the stuff. We had to convince them, too. It works out really well,” he said.