Wilkes County Citizens attend Meeting Regarding Allowing Renewal Energy Company to Convert Agricultural and Food Waste to Energy.

Published on 24 July 2023 at 09:24

Wilkes County planning commissioners

A Massachusetts technology company specializing in organic waste recycling is hoping to set up shop at a Wilkes County dairy operation. Vanguard Renewables — headquartered in Weston, MA — which promotes a green approach to handling and recycling agricultural and industrial food waste and providing a renewable source of energy, is seeking a special use permit to to allow operation of a manufacturing facility in an agricultural district.

            Vanguard began in 2014 with the idea that the processes for handling food waste in this country were very inefficient. They promote a more environmentally-friendly approach to handling and recycling agricultural and industrial food waste, resulting in a renewable source of energy.

            The company is seeking approval to set up an anaerobic co-digester at the Smith Dairy Farm on Centerville Road near Rayle.

            A co-digester puts organic waste like manure and waste from food manufacturing or retail level disposal into a closed tank without oxygen; in this “anaerobic” condition specialized microbes from the gut of the cow can digest the organic matter.

            As Vanguard’s representatives presented their case to the Wilkes County Planning Commission last week, many skeptics were present, some openly critical of the plan. The Wilkes County Commission must grant a special use permit to allow operation of a manufacturing facility in an agricultural district.

            Opponents distrust allowing any transportation and dispersal of food or agricultural waste byproducts — they call it “sludge” —  in the county, particularly after the 2022 toxic overflow from a Wilkes farm into the Little River that killed thousands of fish.

            Neighbors along Centerville Road are adamant in their opposition. A number of them are parties in a lawsuit filed three years ago claiming Jeff Smith, the dairy’s owner, along with a number of other defendants, “are benefitting financially by giving businesses a place to dump waste at a cheaper rate than they can at a landfill, while spreading materials that ‘contained ingredients that would shock the conscience of local neighbors, including…toilet paper, and poultry carcasses and body parts.’”

            William Beck lives on Centerville Road, close to the Smith farm. In a 2020 interview with the Madison County Journal, Beck said “owning land in rural areas involves being exposed to agricultural smells. That’s just life in the country.

         “It could be the sour smell of silage or food materials. But the smell of death is something you would probably not expect.”

           When he reached out to the Smiths, Beck claims he was told it was just manure. “I said, ‘No, it’s more than that.’”

         Joshua Parker, another nearby resident spoke out at the meeting. “You just can’t trust them to do the right thing.”

         Attorney Bob Mowrey, representing Smith, told the Madison County Journal, “It is Smith Farms’ understanding that the beneficial reuse of the types of materials that Smith Farms obtains from its suppliers is very common in Georgia and elsewhere.”

         He added that Georgia law encourages recycling and this practice is a form of that. “The fact that the Department of Agriculture regulates the agricultural use of these materials through licensing and registration indicates this is a common, accepted practice and that the plaintiffs’ effort to characterize the practice as improper is misplaced.”

         Vanguard researched and adopted the anaerobic co-digestion recycling method long used in Europe, where manure from farm animals, along with inedible food waste produced by food manufacturing or from the retail level is treated. Methane is a byproduct, as well as organic material that can be used as fertilizer. The methane can be further refined for use as renewable natural gas in energy production.

            “I wanted to reinvent how our country deals with food waste because we don’t do it very well,” said says John Hanselman, one of Vanguard’s founders. “More than 50 million tons of food is sent to landfills and incinerators annually in the US.”

            Nick Cuhna, development manager for Vanguard, describes the digester process as “basically a mechanical cow’s stomach; the biology works the same way” in further breaking down organic waste. However, the scale of the operation needs to be quite large to be cost-effective, so they use a modified system that processes additional types of waste.

            “And what we supplement this with, to insure we have enough gas production to fund this project, is food grade waste that’s coming, for instance from a milk processing facility…or large bulk manufacturers. What it is not is human septic, not municipal solid waste, not rendering fluid from a meat processing facility.”

            The resulting solid and liquid by-products can be stored in “lagoons” until it can be used as soil amendment. The methane in this case will be transported off-site, since the project currently doesn’t include a power-generation component.

            Some of the citizen concerns, in addition to accidental release from the ponds, include health issues, foul odor, groundwater and wetland contamination, the increased presence of carrion birds and insects, and excessive heavy truck traffic on an otherwise lightly-traveled county secondary road. Questioned by the panel, Cuhna conceded that could be as many as 20 trucks a day.

            On a larger scale, some expressed general concerns about the use of rural areas as dumping grounds for commercial industrial food byproducts.

            Attorney Jeffrey DeLoach, representing Vanguard, told panelists “the goal that we have, and a goal that we believe the county and the community should share…is to improve sustainable farming and frankly improve this farmer’s operation and also bring some jobs and other revenue to the county.”

            The Planning Commission plans to consult with the county attorney before making a recommendation to the full commission, which meets August 10 at 2:00 PM in their meeting room at the Courthouse.


(Material from the Madison County Journal used by permission)

Reporting by Richard Crabbe


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Photo 1 Centerville Road resident Joshua Parker expresses opposition to the rezoning. Photo 2 Vanguard Renewables attorney Jeffrey DeLoach. Photo 3 Concerns citizens. Photo 4 Vanguard development manager Nick Cuhna and attorney DeLoach

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Jimmy Toto
a year ago

This is not a rezoning hearing! Be responsible in your reporting and get the correct information, incorrect reporting does not help anyone!