Atkins balks at city’s ethanol program

By Beth Gilomen

Over the last few weeks, Champaign has been gearing up for ethanol: the city council added a site for a potential plant to the enterprise zone to encourage investment, and they’ve been courting Andersons, Inc., an Ohio-based ethanol company. Only one thing stands in the city’s way: the Atkins Group, which refused to sign an annexation agreement that would allow for the development of a County plant.

But the Atkins Group is not opposed to ethanol, they are worried about the effects of a plant on an area that they believe has the potential for residential development.

“We are for ethanol and ethanol production,” said Mark Dixon, the group’s director of industrial real estate. “But the proximity to town is a concern. A combination of things concern us. [The Andersons] say that the plant won’t have an affect on the [Mahomet Aquifer], but that has been challenged by the state water survey.”

Despite the debate several groups hope that plans to bring ethanol production to the county are not dead in the water. Because of the Atkins Group’s refusal, Andersons and the city have been forced to rethink their original course of action, said Tom Bruno, at-large city councilman for Champaign.

Andersons, an agri-business and retailing company, released an information sheet assuring the community that the plant with barely affect area aesthetics, in an attempt to alleviate concerns about noise and emissions, among other things.

Dixon said the Andersons’ attempt to lessen fears failed. Allen Wehrmann, director of the center for groundwater science, a division of the Illinois State Water Survey, said that, presently, he thinks the aquifer can handle an increase in demand for water that an ethanol plant would bring. But he added that not enough information is known about the long-term affect the proposed plant could have to the Mahomet Aquifer, which supplies water to Champaign-Urbana.

“They are just now drilling test wells,” Wehrmann said. “We believe at this time that it can sustain the water pumping rate…it would be an incremental increase to the current demand.”

Wehrmann said that the Andersons have already pledged to correct any damage they may cause to the aquifer.

But Bruno said the project is in trouble.

“The Andersons need to achieve contiguity for the project to move forward, but that involves a change in plans,” Bruno said. “They will have to find another space for the plant ..the setback really screws us up.”

Bruno said the Atkins’ decision could delay plans for the development for one to two months and that the concerns the Atkins’ are posing are the same that were raised months ago.

He also said the city has a strong financial interest in the development and hopes plans would continue to move ahead. If they don’t, he said, the city could lose this opportunity, which has the potential to bring more tax revenue to the city and create jobs.

Despite the setback, the Andersons said their company is not willing to give up yet.

Neill McKinstray, Andersons’ VP and general manager for ethanol, said the group has significant strategic reasons for wanting to develop in Champaign.

“We have been part of the community with our grain division for almost 40 years,” McKinstray said. “We like the area, and we have customers and investors who would like to see us develop in that area.”

He also said he isn’t sure that the Atkins’ decision will stall the company’s plans. He said that the company has significant ongoing operations and that this isn’t the first time these concerns have been brought up in the company’s history. He said the company will be patient with the city and hasn’t set an expiration date.

“We don’t approach these things with uninformed or knee-jerk reactions,” McKinstray said. “We work with reputable companies to understand the area’s capabilities and stay within them.”

The Andersons’ confirmation won’t sway Atkins, Dixon said.

David Bullock, a professor of agriculture and consumer economics, said the situation is “typical of what’s going on across the United States.”

“Ethanol has gone through a honeymoon period with this country, and now people are starting to realize that it may not be all they had hoped for,” Bullock said. “Ethanol plants are factories and like any other factory they aren’t pretty, they don’t smell very good, etc. People don’t want them in the neighborhoods.”

But both the Atkins Group and the Andersons are political big-hitters with extensive connections, he said, and the issue may not come to a quick resolution.

“They are going to have a big spat,” Bullock said.