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Debate brews over proposed ethanol plant

Supporters say a proposed $80 million ethanol plant on the Buffalo River will create jobs on fallow land and churn out much-needed alternative fuel.

"I think it's a no-brainer," said Peg Overdorf, whose Mackinaw Street home is less than a mile from the proposed site.

Others see the project as a threat to public safety, the environment and quality of life -- concerns that they claim stretch beyond the Old First Ward neighborhood.

"I see it as a regional issue," said Cary Kuminecz, an Orchard Park geologist who thinks the plant would be a setback to waterfront and downtown development efforts.

"We're on the economic knife edge, and Buffalo could go one way or another. As Buffalo goes, so goes the region," he said.

Then there are some Common Council members who want assurances from city planners that an exhaustive environmental review will be launched before giving the project a green light.

Two local entrepreneurs hope to open the plant in May 2008 on an 18-acre site along Childs Street, off Ohio Street. Rick Smith III and Kevin Townsell, co-founders of RiverWright Energy, have filed with the city a dossier thicker than a phone book containing site plans, designs and other documents. They will need approvals from the city Planning Board, Zoning Board and Council.

Smith insisted all environmental issues have been addressed. He warned that a prolonged study could doom the deal. RiverWright is working with investors, and Smith said about 80 ethanol plants are already on the drawing board in other regions.

"We're not trying to skirt things. But we didn't think we would be here in April [without city approvals]," he said.

Opponents are putting the heat on City Hall to block the plant. Some say their biggest worries involve safety issues. Up to 2.3 million gallons of flammable materials would be stored at the site, and several toxins would be used in a process that would turn 40 million bushels of corn each year into ethanol. Once the fuel is produced, it would be transported via rail to the Albany area.

Foes worry about explosions, fires and spills -- and not just on the plant site, but also as raw materials and ethanol are shipped to and from the plant.

And then there are the quality-of-life issues -- concerns about odors, noise, truck traffic and rodents.

Julie Cleary lives on Hamburg Street, less than a half-mile from the site. She's worried when she hears people like Mayor Byron W. Brown lauding the project as another sign of Buffalo's "changing economic fortune."

"The city is latching on to anything," she said. "They're grasping at straws for money. But what would it do to these neighborhoods and to downtown?"

Brown is convinced the project will be good for the city and region. Still, he urged RiverWright to take whatever steps are needed to assuage residents' lingering concerns.

Town of Tonawanda resident Tara Ende grew up in the Old First Ward. She claimed building an ethanol plant on a waterfront that planners are scrambling to revitalize would be as big a blunder as building the Skyway a half-century ago. The city would be the nation's "laughingstock," she warned.

"It would be 'backwards Buffalo' again," Ende said.

But Smith insisted the criticisms are unfounded, adding that the plant would be a natural fit for its industrial neighborhood and the waterfront.

"What else would people think of doing with these grain elevators? I don't think there's a higher or better use," he said.

And then there are the 67 jobs the plant would create, positions that would pay between $30,000 and $80,000 a year. Smith said the job-starved region must foster new industries.

"If you don't create wealth, you're not going to have jobs. If you don't have jobs, people aren't going to stay," he said.

The mayor supports the project, lauding it as an innovative way to give new life to dormant property. Overdorf, who heads the Valley Community Association, agrees.

"No one is going to come forward with money to take down these grain elevators," Overdorf said. "If we don't do something now, no one else is going to step up to the plate."

Others believe the plant would be worse than being saddled with abandoned grain elevators. Kuminecz said his family lived downwind from an ethanol plant near South Bend, Ind. He said the strong "stale beer" smell permeated downwind communities for miles. He said the region shouldn't risk the possibility of having a stench deter development. He added that ethanol-related accidents have occurred in other regions.

While Smith didn't dispute that there have been some fires and spills linked to the production and shipment of ethanol, he said most have been relatively minor. Smith added that the waterfront is already home to companies that use chemicals and gasses.

"There are other things [in the area] that are much more dangerous than ethanol," he said. Smith said the ethanol production process is similar to making beer. As for worries about smells, Smith said the plant would be the first ethanol facility "on the planet" with a new type of thermal oxidizer that should eliminate "99.9 percent" of odors. The plant would also have a rodent-control plan and would meet all environmental criteria, he said.

What about concerns that production could cause maddening noise? RiverWright officials said that all hammermills will be indoors and that a study has determined noise seeping outside the plant will be equivalent to "a quiet suburban conversation at home."

The Council is expected to discuss the plan at a Legislation Committee meeting Tuesday. Council President David A. Franczyk and North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. want the Planning Board to conduct an exhaustive environmental review. Franczyk said he understands developers' desire to move forward with plans, but he believes a full-blown study is warranted.

"Our first concern has to be the neighborhood," Franczyk said.

Franczyk, South Council Member Michael P. Kearns and city planners recently visited an ethanol plant in South Dakota. Kearns said he believes the project could be "positive" for the neighborhood and the region. But he said there are still some lingering concerns the developers must address.

"We need to proceed very cautiously," he said.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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