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Ethanol plant: environmental boon or subsidy magnet?

It's rare when a factory and a mega-farm can help reduce pollution. A project planned for Harrison County promises just that. The project would produce a fuel additive that reduces air pollution, provide a market for Ohio farm goods, create scores of jobs all while not harming the environment. The project is getting millions of dollars of help from the state and federal governments. But some people doubt the project will accomplish all it promises.

The project is called Harrison Ethanol. It will include an ethanol factory, using millions of bushels of corn a year to produce the environmentally friendly gasoline additive. At the same location, thousands of dairy and beef cattle will live in fully enclosed barns. And then there's the small power plant, which will be fueled by manure produced by the cattle. Wendel Dreve is the project's director.

Dreve began working on the project nearly 4 years ago. He's retired from the oil and gas industry and built a home in eastern Ohio farm country. His neighbors approached him about starting up a corn powered ethanol factory something that has not existed in Ohio in a decade.

The 12,000 cattle housed on site, will eat the main byproduct of ethanol production, a corn mush called distillers grains. The cattle will generate money too, from sales of milk and meat. But the cattle will create manure, lots of manure, about 50 million gallons of it a year. Dreve has a solution for that, too: a power generating anaerobic digester.

60 times a day, manure will be flushed out of the animal barns and into the digester. A large, cement structure, where the manure is broken down by microbes.

The methane will run power generators, creating "green energy," which can be sold at a premium. The carbon dioxide will be sold to make carbonated sodas. This would be the first anaerobic digester powered by cattle manure in Ohio, and one of only a handful nationwide. Dreve says his digester will be much better for the environment than open air manure lagoons, the cheaper method most commonly used by farmers. But not everyone agrees. Bill Weida is an economist and director of the Grace Factory Farm project which opposes large concentrated animal farms.

Weida says most anaerobic digesters are paid for with some kind of government assistance. Harrison Ethanol is no exception. The project received a $500-thousand grant from the US Department of Agriculture to help pay to build the digester.

Harrison Ethanol is receiving $70-million in financing assistance from the state. And the project location was picked to maximize state and federal tax credits. Add to that federal ethanol subsidies and federal subsidies for corn production, and Harrison Ethanol is getting plenty of help from tax payers.

Ken Cook is executive director of the Environmental Working Group. He says ethanol may reduce air pollution and reliance on foreign oil, but it is not economically viable without government help.

That's not how state officials see it. Bill Teets is a spokesman for the department of development which has been working to bring several ethanol plants to Ohio.

The project will create 372 temporary construction jobs, and more than 150 permanent jobs. It is in the final phase of getting approval from state regulators and could break ground before summer. And if everything goes as planned, Wendel Dreve will build 2 more ethanol and cattle operations in Ohio. He's already secured state and federal funding for those plants.