Weld County commissioners suspend permits for Heartland Biogas
January 5, 2017
Not many people smiled as they left the Weld County Commissioners meeting on Dec. 19.
Heartland Biogas, a company that turns farm and food waste into fuel, has been under the county's microscope since July. First, it got a stench violation in April. As hearings progressed throughout the rest of the year, more and more complaints piled up.
Commissioners decided Dec. 19 the company has broken almost 10 state and county rules, including air quality regulations and permitting infractions. The meeting started a little after 9 a.m., and officials made their verdict after 6 p.m.
They unanimously voted to suspend the company's permits until it comes into compliance.
When it first opened, residents, leaders and environmentalists were excited about the potential. The company diverts waste from landfills and creates renewable energy.
"At that time, I was proud," Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer said. "I can tell you now: I'm not. It has morphed into a mess."
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Leaders have spent months hearing residents talk about migraines, nausea, panic attacks, loss of sleep and canceled family parties. That paired with the legal problems led the commissioners to temporarily shut down the company, make it fix its violations and go through another permitting process.
Company representatives, contracted lawyers and consultants walked out in near silence. Neighboring residents weren't totally disappointed, but they didn't celebrate much either. The resounding sentiment: It's not over yet.
"I think it's a good move," said Nancy Flippin, one of the neighbors who accidentally became an activist.
She and her neighbors have been at every hearing, the first of which occurred in July. Many of them have spent hundreds of hours researching state and county regulations and Heartland Biogas' infrastructure and business history. That research led to the subsequent violation complaints — all of the ones after the smell violation recorded in April.
RELOCATION OR SUSPENSION
Because of the later complaints, the neighborhood group began to believe revocation was the only way commissioners could fix the problem. After Monday's meeting, they felt the suspension wasn't the best option, but it worked.
"I think that's a good outcome," Flippin said. "It still leaves it open for them to be able to comply … (but) I don't have much confidence in this company."
Companies operating in Colorado have to get a permit called a certificate of designation. Essentially, it lets state and county regulators know who is running the show and that they're doing so safely. Colorado law says companies can't operate without one.
Heartland Biogas took its property over from another company with a similar name, and its officials never got the document transferred.
Lawyers argued in various ways this shouldn't be a problem, but commissioners ended up listing this as one of the main reasons for suspension.
To get the certificate, Heartland Biogas will have to go through a new permitting process, which will include public hearings in front of the commissioners.
Company officials described all the projects they're undertaking to address the smell. They've already spent $1 million adding new technology to the site to cover up the scent, and they've pledged about $3 million more. All these costs are on top of the $115 million Heartland Biogas spent setting up the facility.
"The reality is, they were supposed to have a bunch of this stuff done before they opened for operation, and they didn't," Kirkmeyer said.
The company had a few experts take the stand to address the complaints. One expert — a Stanford professor and odor consultant — explained many of the complaints didn't seem valid. They didn't align with a consultant's odor studies, and many people who complained did so multiple times per day.
Both residents and officials found this explanation offensive, they said.
"They're questioning whether or not we're telling the truth," said Michael Morris, a neighbor who owns a local painting company. "I have better things to do (than make things up)."
FOR AND AGAINST
When officials opened up the mic, dozens took the opportunity. As could be expected, neighbors detailed how miserable the stench has made their lives in the area and urged the commissioners to revoke Heartland's permits. A handful of people stuck up for the company. A couple dairy farmers said the plant was the only sustainable way for them to get rid of manure. Recycling experts said the plant was vital for Colorado's future.
Miranda Arens and her family have lived on the property for five generations, spanning back to 1894. She said the facility and its pollutants pose a risk to existing family members and the generation that will arrive in the next few years.
"I want to be very clear: Heartland Biogas is not our future," she said. "Your residents are."
Flippin has toured the facility and spent time talking with company officials. Like they did during the hearing, they told Flippin there are a lot of smells in that rural part of the county, including nearby dairy smells, and there's no way to pin stench waves on Heartland Biogas.
"I've lived there 38 years," Flippin told the commissioners. "I definitely know the difference between dairy and feedlot odors and the odors this facility puts off."
Paul Shelton, a nearby dairy farmer, said he and his business depend on Heartland Biogas to handle the farm's manure sustainably.
His employees deliver 12 semi-truckloads of manure to the plant every day, he said. If the plant were to close, he'd likely have to spend about $1 million to build infrastructure to handle the manure on his own site.
Various recycling officials pointed to Heartland's benefits, saying no other plant in the state is offering similar services, making the company integral to state environmental initiatives.
Marjorie Griek spent years working in the county's public health and environment department and she's the former executive director at Colorado Association for Recycling.
"It's extremely important to keep this facility operational," she said.
Every dollar spent on employing rural residents in the recycling business brings in an additional 35 cents to the county, she said.
"The money is going into local retail outlets," she said. "It also can generate other business."
Diverting food also cuts down on greenhouse gases. Each ton of food placed in a landfill creates 3.8 tons of greenhouse gases.
Although many remained cynical throughout the hearings, and a couple commissioners followed suit, Commissioner Chairman Mike Freeman is holding onto hope. He points to the $4 million in pledged investment and the improvements the company has already carried out since the first hearing.
"It'll continue to get better," he said. "What we've always wanted in this is for it to work for everybody."❖