Opponents of a biogas plant planned for the High River area say it should be halted under Alberta’s moratorium on renewable energy projects.
They’re petitioning the province to include the Rimrock Renewables’ biodigester in the province’s seven-month pause on larger renewable electricity-producing developments.
Critics of the plant, proposed for a 41.4-hectare site 5.5 kilometres west of High River, are concerned about air quality, odours, truck traffic and water effects, as well as the effect the processing facility would have on property values.
One reason for the pause on renewables is to firm up a process on after-use reclamation, a concern that should apply to the Rimrock proposal, said Benita Estes, whose property lies 200 metres from the site.
“It should be re-evaluated with all other biogas (producers) the same as the solar, wind farms that are ripping off agricultural land,” said Estes.
“It’s going to be no different from the orphan oil and gas wells that claim bankruptcy (and are abandoned) but this is a bigger mess — no one’s thinking about how they reclaim that (biodigester) land.”
Opposition to the proposal now includes a petition from the group High River, Are You Sick of the Smell? that’s been signed by hundreds of people over the past three weeks, said Estes, demanding the project be included in the renewables moratorium.
Neighbours say the biodigester should be built in an industrial area north of High River that already hosts the Cargill meat processing plant.
Request doesn’t fall under moratorium because it doesn’t generate electricity, province says
But the proposed $70-million biodigester isn’t under the moratorium because it wouldn’t generate electricity, said Alberta Environment and Protected Areas (EPA) spokesman Tom McMillan.
“The proposed biodigester would produce renewable natural gas from the biodigestion, and so the application is for approval under the Environmental Protection Enhancement Act,” he said in an email.
“The temporary pause on renewable electricity generation projects applies to Alberta Utilities Commission (AUC) review and approvals. It does not impact regulatory reviews and approvals from Alberta Environment and Protected Areas, the Alberta Energy Regulator or other bodies.”
The company says it plans to produce 450,000 gigajoules of renewable natural gas (RNG) per year, enough to meet the needs of 6,000 homes in Foothills County. Its parent firm, Tidewater Renewables, announced last fall it had reached an agreement with FortisBC to purchase the green credits of the RNG over the next 20 years.
It will process livestock waste from an existing, adjacent feedlot and from organic waste trucked in from Calgary, with Rimrock saying the latter activity will involve the arrival of six or seven trucks a day.
Rimrock didn’t respond to an interview request.
But Rimrock officials and its consultants have said the plant would reduce odours already produced by that feedlot by 47 per cent and eliminate 95 per cent of processing odours, while its design will protect surrounding groundwater and the Highwood River 2.8 km away.
“Greenhouse gas emissions being released into the atmosphere will be captured by the biodigester . . . it’s expected to have a positive impact on odours from the feedlot,” Denny Boisvert, Rimrock‘s director of capital projects, said earlier this year.
But critics say the lack of a cover on the plant’s effluent lagoon which they say would span 8 hectares leaves open the problem of odours and wonder why it isn’t following the designs of other biogas plants that don’t have open-air ponds.
Opponents have seized on admission that certain emissions levels may exceed provincial air quality objectives
EPA had hoped to make an announcement on a possible approval last March, but that’s been extended for a technical review and “a decision is expected in the coming months,” said McMillan.
In a letter sent to Rimrock last March, EPA requested more information on the company’s plans to mitigate pollution and odour concerns, and “protection against groundwater intrusion.”
And it questioned the company’s rationale for its estimates on poisonous hydrogen sulphide production rates in its modelling, and for “not installing a double liner with leak detection system for the liquid digestate pond.”
In a report submitted in July, a consultant hired by Rimrock said the company has responded to those concerns with numerous design changes.
“A primary driver for this has been feedback and concerns from local landowners and residents of Foothills County about odour conditions in the region and the potential impact of the project on regional odours,” states the report by EXP Services Inc.
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But the report also states hydrogen sulfide and ammonia emissions levels may still exceed Alberta Ambient Air Quality Objectives when combined with those produced by the existing feedlot.
“This means that any air quality monitoring that is conducted at the project fence line during facility operations is likely to show exceedances, regardless of the project’s investment in odour abatement technologies,” it states.
Opponents have seized on that admission and remain unconvinced by the company’s assurances, saying the province has granted Rimrock far more leeway than it’s given them.
“The EPA didn’t give us any extra time to file our concerns but they gave Rimrock every chance,” said Estes.
“This is a joke on the residents of Foothills County and High River. The whole process stinks.”
Rimrock says if the project is approved, it hopes to begin construction next year.