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Critics of the Bion Environmental Services Project Weigh In

Op Ed: Bion Facility is Risky Venture for the North Country


In light of the immense scale of Bion Environmental Services proposed livestock facility in Ogdensburg, I am writing to share research findings and other observations that should give all of us pause before embracing this form of economic development for the North Country.

The 84,000 head beef cattle feeding operation proposed by Bion would be the kind of investor-owned, very-large-scale livestock production facility that has often resulted in negative economic and social impacts on rural communities. Several of the states that have enabled investor-owned livestock feeding operations of various types have regretted the decision and attempted to reverse it. For example, North Carolina passed a moratorium on large-scale swine operations after these resulted both in little economic gain and severe environmental and social disruptions.

Clearly Bion has learned from these earlier experiences and proposes significant investment in environmental technologies. However the sheer scale of the project, unheard of in the Northeast, makes it more likely for a catastrophic outcome if what the sociologist Charles Perrow labels the "normal accidents" that are inherent risks of industrial facilities occur. The hog facilities in North Carolina took significant precautions against flooding, but their developers did not anticipate a storm the size and type of Hurricane Floyd. As a result, manure lagoons were over-topped and rural areas were littered with the corpses of drowned poultry and swine. While Bion is proposing a different type of manure management system, it will still be subject to severe weather events.

I am a sociologist who studies agriculture and agricultural policy. Some of my research has focused on the links between the health of rural communities and the characteristics of the farms around them. Major farming areas have a long history of skepticism toward large-scale, investor-owned livestock operations. The Midwestern states of Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri all put bans on corporate farming in the seventies and early eighties. And in one study I found that agriculture-dependent areas with such bans have less poverty and higher personal income than agriculture-dependent areas without the bans. Although recent court rulings have called the constitutionality of such laws into question, the point remains that such skepticism has proven wise.

Also, the promises of jobs and other economic benefits made by the developers of these facilities have often not been fulfilled. For example, the trend in larger scale agricultural production is to make arrangements with labor contractors to import labor from Mexico and Central America. Such labor can be paid very low wages, in part because their tenuous position in this country makes such workers difficult to organize into unions and they tend to not complain even about low pay and bad working conditions. In this way agri-food corporations create jobs that current U.S. resident-workers "do not want." However, it is more accurate to describe such jobs as "not intended or designed" for U.S. resident-workers. It is likely that Bion will import workers to keep down labor costs, since even some of the family dairy operations in our area use imported labor, and the largest of these are dwarfed in size by the proposed Bion facility.

Family owned and operated farming operations have proven to be the most durable and sustainable system for organizing agricultural production. Family owned and operated farming operations, even when larger in scale, tend to keep more of the profits they earn in the communities in which they operate. Also for family-owned and operated farms, how profits are distributed across workers, managers and owners can be less important and more equitable because the three roles often reside in one person; or workers, managers and owners live in the same household. And if the owner-operators live or were raised in the community in which they farm, they tend to be part of the social and community fabric. As such they potentially require less formal state regulations because they will be influenced by social norms and local expectations. This will not be the case for the Bion owners.

Significantly adding to the fed-cattle inventory in St. Lawrence County or the North Country region is a good idea. But a much better way would be by helping current cow-calf operators to feed their cattle here, and by helping new operators find the capital needed to raise and feed local cattle-- not by shipping in live feeder cattle, feeding them here and shipping them out to low end markets on the East Coast. The latter production scheme makes local rural residents incur many of the risks, while shareholders and consumers in urban areas reap the benefits. In contrast, a more local production regime would result in a more dispersed distribution of economic benefits that would add value to our agricultural economy. It would also have environmental and social benefits. What we need to gain these benefits is to have Cornell Cooperative Extension, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, local universities as well as our local governments and civil society groups assist North Country producers to organize to produce, process, package and market to high end markets on the East Coast. Marketing and distribution in conjunction with production are more profitable than production alone; and the higher end markets such as "natural", "grass-fed" and "organic" are where the most growth currently resides in agricultural consumer markets.

To summarize, research evidence and other communities' experiences with large-scale corporate livestock operations argue strongly against permitting this type of development in St. Lawrence County. I urge local government officials and residents to thoroughly and publicly examine this proposal. At a minimum we need to have public hearings about the proposed Bion facility, the adequacy of its environmental protection systems, and the assumptions on which its assertions of a safe and productive operation are based. I urge local government officials and residents to voice their concerns and opinions on this proposal.

Reprinted with permission of the author.


The Bion Working Group:

Rob Jewett
Louise Gava
Ann Heidenreich
Robin McClellan
Susan Powers
Klaus Proemm

Position Paper: Bion Working Group

The Bion Working Group first convened in July, 2007 over questions we had about a rough proposal for an ethanol plant combined with a large feedlot operation. There were a number of initial concerns that triggered the group, but the most obvious was the addition of 84,000 cattle to the 39-56,000 cattle (estimates vary) currently in the county.

When we started looking at the project, we found that Bion had floated a number of proposals that differed in the number of cattle, amount of corn used and amount of ethanol produced.
While many of our questions remain unanswered, we felt that it would irresponsible to not communicate our concerns about the project. Generally these concerns fall into three primary categories: Environment, energy, and economy.

Environment

Manure
Management of manure from 84,000 head of cattle is of significant concern, particularly because of the possibility of spills. Currently the largest dairy CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) in the County are under 2,000 head of cows and calves. Even with the 84,000 beef cattle divided up among six facilities, each of these facilities will be seven times larger than our largest dairy farm.

As the concentration of animals on farms has increased, the handling of manure has become increasingly complex. When our traditional small farms produced much of their own feed, manure was recycled in a fairly tight loop: Farmers transported corn, silage and hay from the fields to the barn and manure was transported back to the fields as fertilizer. In summer months, cows grazed in the fields and much of the manure was left there. With newer mid-sized dairy operations, it is no longer practical to raise all the feed on farm or to transport all the manure back to the fields. Feed is bought in and large volumes of liquid manure is held in lagoons and spread in high concentrations on fields.

Accidental spills of liquid manure, whether caused by human error, lagoon failure, or extreme weather events, do happen. In recent years, there have been several spills from lagoons in this region, some causing serious damage to bodies of water and taking years to completely mitigate.

Air Quality
The nuisance odor study that was carried out by three Clarkson professors relied on comparisons to existing subjective standards. Unfortunately, the Bion process is new and does not yet have a standard. It is estimated that it will have a lower impact than conventional manure management methods, but there are no guarantees. The Clarkson study is available at http://www.biontech.com. What we do know is that large feedlots in other communities have serious nuisance odor problems.

In addition to nuisance odor, there is the issue of methane. Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas and cattle and other domesticated ruminants are a significant source. Bion has predicted that its method for processing manure will reduce the methane output, but this is a new technology that is untested at this scale. Burning of manure solids is also a concern. There has been too little documentation related to the emission control components of this system.

Water
Water is an abundant resource in the region and an increasingly precious resource worldwide. Contamination and depletion of this resource in St. Lawrence County could be devastating. A group of students at Clarkson has calculated that the processing of corn to ethanol at the Bion facility will require 319 gallons of water per minute. The CAFOs will require 583 gallons/minute. Total consumption is estimated at 900 gallons per minute or almost 1.3 million gallons a day! While some water will be recycled, water will have to be drawn from wells or other sources. Where will it come from and where will it go? What will happen in heavy precipitation events? What is in the discharge water?

Transportation
The Bion project will significantly increase truck traffic. Calves will be brought in and cattle transported out to slaughterhouses in the Midwest. Assuming cattle stay for one year in the feedlot, over 1,600 calves will be brought in each week and 1,600 cattle transported out. Using figures from Ohio State University (http://ohioline.osu.edu/b889/b889_4.html and http://ohioline.osu.edu/b889/b889_5.html) that translates to over 28 truckloads of calves/week and over 52 truckloads of steers. If the cattle stay for six months in the feedlots, the number doubles.

The Bion project proposes to feed the cattle wet distiller's grain from the ethanol process, but there will necessarily be supplemental feed. In a conventional feedlot there are over 13 truckloads of feed for every truckload of calves (http://ohioline.osu.edu/b889/b889_4.html).

Energy

One question that arises with an ethanol plant is whether the energy available in the ethanol will be greater than energy used in its production. Some of the energy inputs that we need to look at are:

  1. Corn will need to come from outside the region to the ethanol plant. How will this be transported? How much energy is used in the transportation?
  2. The plant will need heat and electricity. How much?
  3. The distillation of ethanol requires a large energy input. Some of that will come from the burning of manure, but some will have to come from other sources. What is the BTU requirement for this distillation?
  4. The wet distillers' grains will have to be transported from the ethanol plant to the feedlots. How much energy will this take?
  5. Manure will have to be transported back to the plant to be burned. How much energy will this take?
  6. The separation of the solids from the liquids requires energy. How much?

Overall - how much valuable transportation fuel will be generated versus that consumed by the processes both locally and in the Midwest where the corn is grown?

Economy

Although the economic impact study prepared by Bridge Associates presents a glowing picture of the economic consequences, the authors are careful to point out that these are short-term predictions. Furthermore, the proposal that Bion would create 198 jobs and spend $32.3 million annually still seems to be in flux.

The study further predicts that if more of the inputs to the operation (corn, hay and cattle) were to come from the region, the economic impact would be greater. This would also have the effect of having a larger portion of the local agricultural production dependent on a single business.

What is not noted in the Economic Impact Statement is the fragile nature of the finances. The plant depends on a Federal subsidy for ethanol production. Should this subsidy be reduced or eliminated, the plant could become unprofitable and close. Other variables that could influence its financial viability are: the cost of corn and/or hay, the cost of replacement animals and the market for beef.

Although the federal government still supports the production of ethanol from food resources such as corn to supplant imported oil, the public and scientific communities are beginning to protest. The corn ethanol bubble is likely to burst - and the tax subsidy to disappear - during the working life of this facility.

What are the probabilities for long-term economic viability of this plant? What is Bion's and the County's plan for decommissioning the plant if it does not meet economic expectations? What impact would closing the facility have on the region's farmers who have become dependent on Bion for their market?

Agriculture in St. Lawrence County is growing in two different directions. Dairy farms are becoming much larger and are falling under the State's regulation of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), but they remain locally owned. In addition there is a significant growth in organic and sustainable small farms. Bion poses a threat to both these lines of agricultural production by driving up the cost of local agricultural resources including hay, corn and land.

Conclusion

At this point, there is not enough information to fully evaluate the impacts of the Bion project on the region. Given that this is the first large scale project that Bion is proposing, we are unlikely to get much more information. What we can say is that there is a significant potential for adverse impacts on region's environment, culture and economy.

We therefore believe that before this project advances any further, the public should be fully informed and given an opportunity to air its views.

Reprinted with permission of the authors.

 Rick Welsh is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Clarkson University in Potsdam. He has published numerous peer-reviewed articles on agricultural issues. His previous positions include policy analyst at the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture and Director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program for the Southern Region.