Developers of a proposed $80 million ethanol plant on the Buffalo River hope preconstruction work will begin in early May following Tuesday's key approval by the city Planning Board.
The project still needs approvals from the Common Council and Zoning Board, but even some city officials who worry about the plant's impact predict there are enough votes to move it forward.
Council President David A. Franczyk said he's disappointed that the Planning Board voted not to require a more detailed environmental study to further investigate concerns about potential noise, odors, rodents and other "quality of life" issues. While Franczyk hasn't formally opposed the ethanol plant, he said he fears the city and other regulatory bodies are rubber-stamping the project.
"It's not getting the scrutiny it deserves," Franczyk said. "Everyone is lined up like ducks in a row."
Planning Board Chairman Frank A. Manuele insisted the project proposed by RiverWright Energy has already been subjected to exhaustive review. Despite pressure from opponents, the board determined that a full-scale environmental study is unnecessary.
The board adopted a "negative declaration," meaning members are convinced the plan to turn a dormant cluster of grain elevators into a plant that will distill corn for use as fuel will not have a harmful impact.
"They really did their homework," Manuele said of the developers. "Everything has been addressed."
Cynthia A. Schwartz, a long-time Planning Board member, expressed similar views, saying RiverWright went "above and beyond" in its effort to deal with issues.
"This is a remarkably thorough and detailed impact statement," she said.
Schwartz said her one lingering concern about air quality was addressed by responses from state environmental officials.
But some Old First Ward residents insisted the plant will undermine living conditions and cause potential safety hazards. Elizabeth Barrett, who said she lives about a mile from the site, worries about millions of gallons of flammable liquid being stored at the complex.
"There have been explosions in other places," she said.
Manuele said fire safety experts have reviewed the plan and determined that there are adequate safeguards.
"The noise element will be terrible," said Ethel MacLeod, another neighborhood resident. "The smell will be putrid. And then there are the toxins."
Julie Cleary of Hamburg Street has been among the most vocal critics of the ethanol plant. Cleary left City Hall on Tuesday bitterly disappointed that planners gave the project the green light.
"I think it's big business as usual," she said. "I pose this question to [Planning Board members]: Would they want an ethanol plant in their neighborhoods?"
Rick Smith III, co-founder of RiverWright Energy, has repeatedly maintained that all environmental and safety issues have been addressed.
"We've gone through eight months of trying to answer the community's concerns," he said.
Kevin Townsell, Smith's business partner, said the goal is to begin ethanol production in summer 2008. Developers said the plant would employ 67 people as it turns 40 million bushels of corn a year into 110 million gallons of ethanol.
Franczyk said in a meeting with Townsell on Tuesday that RiverWright volunteered to commit 1 percent of the plant's profits to community improvements.