Sarah Lloyd is a member of Cambrians for Thoughtful Development, a citizens group concerned about a proposed ethanol plant in Cambria, Wis. She also works at the Aldo Leopold Foundation and tends to a large garden from which she eats and sells vegetables locally.
Monday, 17 Mar 2003
As I drive through the little village of Cambria, Wis. (population: 790-something), my eye is quickly drawn to signs showing in windows and staked in yards. “YES ETHANOL CAMBRIA-FRIESLAND!” “NO ETHANOL PLANT IN THIS TOWN!” More and more signs are popping up. The lines are being more distinctly drawn. The upcoming April 1 referendum that will give voters a chance to say yes or no to a proposed ethanol plant in Cambria is drawing near.
When I first heard about ethanol I thought it sounded like a good thing. Making fuel for automobiles from a renewable resource, corn, which would reduce smog in urban areas and benefit the beleaguered farmer — sign me up! It was only when ethanol plants began being proposed for this area of south-central Wisconsin that I started to look more closely at the issue. And then in the late fall of 2002, when suddenly within a week there were two ethanol plants proposed for within two miles of my house, I knew I needed to find out for myself if this was a good thing.
Unfortunately, what I found out was not so rosy. It is hard sometimes to know where to begin with the ethanol story. There are a lot of gray areas.
I was at a conference of Wisconsin environmental organizations and conservation interests about a month ago. There was a sort of open-mike forum for people to call attention to pressing issues. We were told we would get a couple of minutes to “shout out” our issues. Well, with speakers running long, as can happen, in the end we were allowed 30 seconds each to speak. I knew I needed to be provocative if I wanted people to pay attention.
“I’d like to speak with you about ethanol today,” I said, “and there are three letters that you need to keep in mind when thinking about ethanol: A.D.M.” Hopefully that got their attention. For those who are not familiar with those three letters, ADM, or Archer Daniels Midland, is a multinational agribusiness that controls at least 40 percent of the ethanol production in this country. In addition, ADM reportedly controls a far more dominant part of the ethanol blending and transportation infrastructure. ADM is not putting up the ethanol plants in Wisconsin, at least not overtly, but they did just buy out the second-largest producer of ethanol, a farmer-owned co-op in Marshall, Minn. (If you’re interested, read more specifics on this buyout and ADM’s control of the ethanol market.)
Corn is an interesting commodity in the U.S. Corn, corn, corn, as far as the eye can see. Farmers grow corn even though the price is lousy, and the price is lousy in part because farmers are growing corn for a surplus market. Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the powerful ADM and agribusiness lobby managed to score a double victory. They got federal subsidies to support the production of ethanol (to the tune of $0.54/gallon to the blender), and they got the federal government to mandate the use of “reformulated” gasoline in key urban areas. The federal subsidies are amplified by state subsidies. Wisconsin had a $0.20/gallon subsidy on the books, but rumor has it that this has been cut down a bit. These subsidies for ethanol production are on top of the subsidies paid to farmers to grow the corn in the first place. So as a taxpayer, you are paying a subsidy to encourage farmers to grow a product that we don’t need, and then you have to subsidize someone with your tax dollars to make something out of that product.
Don’t be so negative, they say. If it’s good for the farmers and it’s good for the environment, then we should support it. Well, it’s not quite that simple. I guess I’ll start with the farmers since I live in farm country and this has been the most troublesome critique of my stance on ethanol. Farmers are in a terrible situation. The system has failed them. Small family farms are disappearing on a daily basis. This negatively affects families and rural communities. But growing mono-crop commodity corn for a surplus market is part of the system that has brought farmers to the brink. Building a monument to this failed system, in the form of an ethanol plant — or, for that matter, two within two miles of each other — is not my idea of a strategy for the long-term viability of family farms and rural communities.
But this message does not get out. Citizens, including myself, who have come together on this issue in the Cambria area, in Wisconsin, and in the Midwest are labeled “anti-farmer.” The farmers defend their stake in this system with vigor. Here in Cambria, they brought their tractors to the streets in a show of support for ethanol. On a cold day in late December perhaps 50 tractors and other farm implements were paraded around and around the downtown streets. I’m sure it was the most activity this village has seen in a long time.
I’ve only managed to scratch the surface on the issue of ethanol in this first diary entry. Needless to say I am not a big fan of ethanol and I am concerned about it being produced in my backyard. Much of the information that has informed my actions is collected on a website put up by the citizens organization that I am part of. If your curiosity has been piqued, take a look at the Cambrians for Thoughtful Development site, and tune in to future entries for more on ethanol, NIMBY, and fun with PR professionals.
Tuesday, 18 Mar 2003
The residents of Cambria, Wis., and surrounding towns were caught a bit off guard last November, when Didion Milling announced that it was going to expand its existing milling operation into an ethanol plant. Just a couple of weeks earlier, a group of farmers and business people, the United Wisconsin Grain Producers, had announced plans for another ethanol plant, to be located two miles northeast of Cambria. Suddenly, plans for two ethanol plants within two miles of each other were on the table.
The citizen action protesting these ethanol developments have focused on the Didion plant in Cambria, because the proposed Didion site is in a population center and adjacent to a school. The UWGP plant, meanwhile, is located in a township with no zoning, meaning there is no local process by which citizens can become involved. We have all learned a lot about government, democracy, and zoning through our activism — and there will certainly be many more lessons before all is said and done.
The group Cambrians for Thoughtful Development arose out of the need for citizens’ voices to be heard. The Cambria Village board president has started almost every public meeting with a 10-minute monologue about the glories of ethanol and how excited he is about this project. Back in November, when the Didion ethanol plant was first announced, a few citizens (including myself) came together to raise questions. Our numbers have grown since then.
Our first action was to put out a flier asking what an ethanol plant in Cambria, next to the school, would mean for our health and the health of our children. What were the environmental considerations? What would be the cost to the village in road maintenance, water and sewer facilities, and so forth? What would an increase of 112 trucks passing through Cambria per day mean in terms of diesel emissions, safety, and quality of life? Could the promises of higher corn prices for farmers and more jobs for the area be guaranteed?
Fliers were delivered door to door. As the number of active CTD members has grown, so has the speed at which we are able to distribute information. We have now released four fliers over the past three months. (Two of the fliers are now online.) The subject of the fliers depends on the question of the day. It is an interesting task to try to figure out what information is resonating with people at a given time and in what form they can digest it. One comment we heard back from our first flier (which asked a lot of questions about the ethanol project) was, “well, your organization doesn’t seem to know anything, all it does is ask questions.” Subsequent fliers have tried to call attention to the different zoning and ordinances issues the village board should consider in its decision-making process.
In addition to distributing fliers, we’ve all been attending a lot of meetings. The once-lonely meetings of the Cambria village board have, in many instances, become standing room only. Village board members have also been under scrutiny through open-records requests. These requests, governed by Wisconsin law, have helped citizens stay on top of correspondence between the board and the applicant, Didion. A string of email was released that showed Didion instructing the village board president on how to conduct the public hearing on the company’s zoning-permit application. Instructions included “having a uniformed officer present to ensure an orderly meeting.” Another board member has also been exchanging email with Didion talking about “our cause” of getting the ethanol plant approved.
There will be a big push from both sides now before the April 1 election, which has the potential to install a new village board president and three new trustees. (Three other trustees will continue to serve and are up for election next year). The ballot will also contain the question, “Should Didion Milling Inc. be allowed to expand with an ethanol plant in or near the Village of Cambria?” Tonight, the chamber of commerce, which has taken an aggressive pro-ethanol stance, will hold a “Meet the Candidates Night” in the school gym. Should be interesting, since most of the candidates have declined to attend because of the very biased way in which the chamber powers-that-be have been operating. Look for a report on this circus tomorrow.
Wednesday, 19 Mar 2003
Today should be an interesting day. At 12:30, I will be on a radio show with representatives from Didion Milling and a University of Wisconsin professor who is billed as an expert on energy and land use. The show will air for 30 to 45 minutes on the AM station in Beaver Dam. I bumped into Didion’s PR consultant last night, and she said she would be on the radio with me. It is interesting how much money Didion is willing to spend on PR professionals and mailings when it refuses to pay for an independent assessment of the potential impact of its proposed ethanol plant.
In response to citizen pressure, the village board passed a motion in January to commission just such an assessment of Didion’s proposed plant. The board’s planning committee recommended that this assessment investigate a range of issues, including emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particulate matter, odor, noise, sewer and water services, train and truck traffic, storage and transportation of hazardous chemicals, emergency response plans, property values, options for setting up performance bonds, and so forth. Didion has refused to pay for this assessment, instead acting as if these kinds of studies are some sort of cruel and unusual punishment.
As citizens, we are told that it is improper for us to want independent assessments of air and water issues; we should trust the state Department of Natural Resources and EPA to protect us. The Didion ethanol plant would be allowed to emit up to 100 tons of VOCs per year, and people assume that if this is the permissible level, it must be safe. But we have been in contact with some people from Lena, Ill., where an ethanol plant is causing lots of grief. The plant has been out of compliance with regards to air emissions on a daily basis, yet it cannot be shut down. Tests in November showed that the plant was emitting three times the permitted level of CO2 and twice the permitted level of VOCs.
I have visited three ethanol plant sites in Minnesota and Wisconsin. All were at least three-quarters of a mile from any concentration of houses, whereas ours will be adjacent to a school. The prevailing attitude is that we are supposed to take one for the team and allow this plant to pollute our lungs and the lungs of our children. Anything else is dismissed as simple NIMBY complaining.
But what will the “team” gain if we give up our environment, our health, and our quality of life? Local farmers are being promised five more cents per bushel of corn to continue their economically and environmentally unsustainable farming practices. The key word here is “promised.” We are told that ethanol will lead to a reduction in the use of fossil fuels (and of course then you have to mention war on Iraq and wave a flag; a homemade billboard down the road from my house proclaims “HECK OPEC — Ethanol.”) The problem is, several studies indicate that it takes at least 1 BTU of fossil fuel to produce 1 BTU of ethanol. The natural gas bill at the Monroe, Wis., ethanol plant is over $100,000 a month. We are also told that using ethanol in our cars will reduce air pollution. That seems to be true, but using ethanol in cars also reportedly increases NOx emissions, which play a larger role in the creation of smog in urban centers.
So I guess with all that in mind, I say, sure, I’ll play the NIMBY card.
Thursday, 20 Mar 2003
It’s difficult to write about events at home when the U.S. is dropping bombs on Iraq. It is a foggy, rainy morning here in Cambria, and it fits my mood. I think about all the people over there — both in our military and the people of Iraq and other countries that will be directly affected by these military actions — and I get scared. I also think about the oil fires that resulted from the last Gulf War, and about the immense amount of resources consumed in war, and it seems frivolous to talk about ethanol and concerns of local air emissions and water use. I feel very discouraged.
There are 13 days left until the April 1 referendum and the village board election. Yesterday, many people got a letter in the mail from a group calling themselves Citizens for Cambria’s Future. The letter urged people to vote in favor of the ethanol plant, claiming that it would increase the tax base. I guess money talks, because we have also been putting together numbers about the taxes and costs to the village associated with the ethanol plant.
Didion Milling recently won an appeal of the state’s assessment of its actual tax. The taxable value of Didion’s existing milling operations was originally set at $4.6 million but was decreased to $3 million. As a result, the annual taxes paid to the village went from $37,950 to $24,750. Most of this reassessment was based on the fact that Wisconsin allows companies to exempt manufacturing equipment. Didion convinced the tax agency that its grain storage silos were manufacturing equipment. With the addition of an ethanol plant, Didion is talking about a $1 million increase in the taxable value of its plant. This would result in an increase of $8,000 in taxes to the village — or $26 per household per year.
So I guess in some ways Cambria needs to decide if $26 per household per year is a sufficient incentive to “host” this plant. There will be the hard costs of road maintenance and perhaps an upgrade of the sewage treatment facility. Of course we are told about the trickle down of every dollar spent in relation to the plant, and there may be some truth to that. But with a dying main street with very limited retail opportunities, you’d have to buy a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches at the local diner to equal the $100 million-plus that is being bandied around as the positive impact on the local economy. I suppose if you are making $9.75 an hour at one of the 20 new jobs promised by the company you might splurge and get a milkshake.
Okay, I’ll stop with the sarcasm. Yesterday, on the radio, Didion’s general manager and PR consultant kept talking about how the Department of Natural Resources allows the company to emit 100 tons of volatile organic compounds and that the company will act within the law so that we the people have nothing to worry about. I tried to point out that it was still 100 tons of toxic chemicals, and that those chemicals were going to be released next to a school. The other guest on the radio show, an energy economist from the university, asked the Didion crew how they thought the permits would be enforced given that the DNR just cut 11 more jobs in the already understaffed air-monitoring division. The general manager just repeated that the company plans to act within the law.
I think about projects that are being funded by USAID and private foundations in Russia and other places, for citizens to take on environmental monitoring roles because the government is not providing that service. Perhaps we need to apply for some of that funding here in the U.S., too.
My sour mood is coming out loud and clear in my writing today. I guess I better sign off before it gets worse.
Friday, 21 Mar 2003
The “Yes ethanol,” “No ethanol” sign contest is escalating. Over the last two days, huge green signs proclaiming “vote yes ethanol” have popped up on all the roads into Cambria. There are also at least four or five right in the town. Next to these mammoth billboards, our little “No Ethanol Plant in this Town!” signs look puny. But maybe that sends a good message in itself?
This battle over ethanol has taken its toll on many relationships in town. I try very hard to keep the issue in the realm of a public policy and not take it personally. Sometimes this is very difficult, such as when people who have always been friendly stand up in public meetings to call me a liar and say they feel sorry for the people who believe me. But many people are able to rise above it.
I got a fun call the other day from a woman who lives a couple of miles outside of Cambria. She and her husband are dairy farmers and are definitely in favor of ethanol. They also raise llamas and I think they may have some sheep. She has a small business doing custom carding of wool and fiber products. She called me because I can type. I have talked to her several times in the past about her business, so her call was not totally out of the blue. She is putting together a proposal for some low-interest small business development loans to expand her business into a larger woolen mill. The opportunity has arisen to buy an industrial carding machine built in the late 1800s, and she wants to seize it but needs some help getting her thoughts together. I was happy to type up her ideas on the computer and we worked them into an introductory proposal.
She has big, exciting plans, and hopes that her business expansion will offer opportunities for farmers to raise sheep and get a good price for their wool. There is a resurgence of interest in working with natural fibers and spinning wool. The big-picture plan includes establishing Cambria as a center for wool and woolen goods. This would bring craft tourists to the area for weekend seminars and to her planned retail outlet. A couple of years ago, she and two other women hosted the annual Wisconsin “Spin-In,” which brought 600 people (mostly women) to the high school gym for the event.
We talked about ethanol a bit while she was here. It was very interesting to hear her perspective. We tried hard to stay off the subject since it was quite clear that we did not see eye to eye. But even if we don’t agree on ethanol in Cambria, we do agree on how exciting it would be to make Cambria a woolen hotspot. As an ethanol opponent, I have been called anti-progress and anti-development. Oh, and don’t forget “tree-hugger.” (Good to know that that epitaph is still alive and well.) I guess I just pick and choose the kind of “progress” I want.
One interesting and truly positive outcome of this whole battle and the formation of the Cambrians for Thoughtful Development is the birth of new friendships and relationships. I now know at least 20 new people in Cambria that I probably never would have met otherwise. I bicycled into town last Saturday, the first spring-like day of the year, and spent more than an hour just stopping and visiting with people in their yards and popping in for a cup of tea. When this ethanol question is resolved, I hope we can harness all the energy and do something positive for Cambria. There has been some talk of trying to set up a cooperative grocery store, and there are lots of other good ideas. But for now, we’ll continue to concentrate on ethanol. We’ll need every ounce of energy we have.