ConAgra consultant Steven Frey talks about the potential environmental impact of a proposed ethanol plant Thursday at the Clovis Civic Center. (CNJ staff photo: Andy DeLisle)
By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer
An army of residents lambasted the idea of building an ethanol plant just west of Clovis on Thursday during a New Mexico Environment Department public hearing.
“I don’t think the residents … want to have this place so close to their homes, so close to their children, so close to their schools. What happens on those New Mexico days when the wind blows? What happens when our children cannot breathe?” Clovis resident Mary Graham said.
Her concerns, along with dozens of others, were heard Thursday by state officials.
NMED Hearing Officer Felicia Orth said she will consider them in her recommendation on whether to issue a permit to ConAgra Trade Group to operate a 110-million-gallon-a-year ethanol plant along U.S. 60-84.
Her report should be given to NMED Secretary Ron Curry within two and a half months. Curry has 30 days to issue his ultimate decision on the permit.
But NMED officials indicated that impassioned protests are somewhat futile.
The New Mexico Environment Department has no grounds to deny an air quality permit for Clovis Ethanol, NMED Air Quality Bureau Chief Mary Uhl said Thursday.
“A permit must be issued,” Uhl said.
The air quality permit is the last major hurdle ConAgra needs to start construction on the plant, which will convert corn into a fuel additive.
Members of Citizens for Right Choice — a grassroots organization against the proposed plant —the Clovis Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and others argued Thursday that building the plant at the proposed site would disproportionately impact minorities and the poor who would live closest to it.
They said that building the plant would violate the Environmental Justice Executive Order signed by Gov. Bill Richardson in November 2005 to protect the environmental rights of low-income and minority communities.
“It’s kind of a David vs. Goliath. We are not looking for a magic stone — because we know we will not find one,” Clovis resident David Briseno said on behalf of an affiliation of Latin Americans.
“We as the citizens of this community are asking for a little bit of respect. We don’t want this plant in this location,” he said.
But the state has no standard to measure environmental justice, Uhl said. Furthermore, it cannot deny a permit because of environmental injustice, she said.
The state Environment Department did follow directives that do exist for environmental justice by allowing the hearing, posting ConAgra’s air permit application in Spanish and English, and responding to community inquiries about the plant, she said.
A permit may be denied by the state if a facility violates a state or federal act, does not meet state or federal standards, or there is cause to believe it will exceed state standards.
NMED officials said they determined ConAgra will not exceed state and federal standards for air pollutants.
ConAgra officials said they did extensive studies to determine the amount of pollutants that would be emitted at the plant, and they will install state-of-the-art equipment to control emissions.
NMED officials said they confirmed the validity of ConAgra studies of air emissions, which include nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide.
“We’ve been able to show that … those issues of health concern are not there… whether (residents) are a minority, poor, or on the other side of the fence,” Clovis Ethanol Manager Kirk Johnson said.
“We feel that it is going to be a safe place,” Johnson said.
Clovis resident Patsy Liston lives across the street from the site of the proposed ethanol plant. She observed Thursday’s proceedings from start to finish.
“Everybody said you can’t fight big business,” Liston said.
“We just have little people to represent us. (But) I plan to keep fighting this,” she said.