Eyota is a blip of suburb on your way through corn. It's a bedroom community of Rochester that starts with a new Kwik Trip and ends with an old butcher shop. The median income is nearly $50,000 and the unemployment rate is 3 percent.
On the town's border is 300 empty acres. That's where MinnErgy LLC wants to build an ethanol plant. The plant would hire 35 people and produce 55 million gallons of ethanol. MinnErgy President Ron Scherbring leans back in his office chair and describes the site as perfect. For example, on the southern end of the site is the DM&E railroad line.
"You have to have just really good quality roads and transportation systems that are up for the challenge. The rail side of it, a site that has level access that you can park trains with your loading and unloading. It's low risk," Scherbring said.
It's a high-risk proposition to geologist Jeff Broberg, a member of the nonprofit group Olmsted County Concerned Citizens. Its aim is to stop the MinnErgy plant from opening.
Broberg is also president of the Minnesota Trout Association, a conservation group. He says the MPCA was ready to release its review of the plant back in February. At the time, the agency seemed to think the plant was on safe ground. Literally.
"This is a mature karst landscape. This is full of sinkholes," Broberg said as he stood at the edge of a year-round spring near the site.
Karst is a craggy limestone that dissolves in water. Sinkholes form, and surface water can easily drain into the ground.
The MinnErgy discharge pipe would run right past a spring and through a wetland. Broberg pulls out a DNR map and points to all the sinkholes.
"Within a mile radius there are 200 sinkholes out there."
Water drains into the sinkholes and comes out of the springs, Broberg says. If ethanol spilled here, it would only take a few hours for ethanol to filter into the groundwater. It could then contaminate aquifers and bubble up in the spring that feeds the Whitewater River.
Broberg also worries about the amount of water the plant will use. MinnErgy will tap into the Jordan Aquifer, a deep, pristine aquifer. And the plant is located where three major watersheds converge.
When MinnErgy drilled test wells on the site, it drained several people's wells a mile around, Broberg says.
"All of this is very closely connected. It's a very fragile water supply in terms of the quantity of water available," said Broberg. "If enough water can drain down a 12-inch hole to impact that well just that short distance away, there's not a lot of volume."
These are issues the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is considering. Myrna Halbach, who manages the ethanol sector of the MPCA and has overseen the MinnErgy plant review, acknowledges MinnErgy's site has sinkholes.
"That doesn't mean a particular site or this site can't be used for a project, otherwise we might have very limited construction in southeastern Minnesota," Halbach said.
As for the amount of water the plant will use, MPCA officials have said that fuel production is a state priority. That means using water to make ethanol is a higher priority than maintaining greens on a golf course.
The MPCA has never turned down an ethanol proposal, and it's only chosen to ask for further study on one project.
MPCA reviews are not a rubber stamp, Halbach says. On two occasions, staff told companies in advance that a site might need extensive environmental review, she says. Those companies chose to look elsewhere.
The MPCA review is not a referendum on an ethanol plant. Local governments make the final decision. In this case, the township of Eyota will take that vote. That is, unless the city of Eyota annexes MinnErgy's property.
Eyota Township Board Chair Gordon Krueger stands on his porch in rural Eyota. He is a little guarded when talking about the plant.
The MinnErgy project has gotten a lot of people upset. Krueger thinks the township's planning board will likely suggest the township approve the project.
"Farmers have been struggling to get by. Most of them, for the year, their income has been the government subsidy," Krueger said. "Finally, the price of corn is up and they can make some money. Now if you could make some money, wouldn't you get involved and push for it?"
One township resident is pushing for it. Bob Pennington is an investor in MinnErgy and a township board member. But he won't vote on the project.
MinnErgy wants to be annexed by the city of Eyota. That means the City Council would cast the deciding vote.
The City of Eyota is examining the environmental and economic impacts an ethanol plant would have on the town, Council member Gerry Bermal says. The city is studying it this way because it wants to make an objective decision, Bermal says.
"I don't think we're at the stage where we can work above emotions that are out there. I need to be careful, and the City Council needs to be careful, that we're answering the question that's put before us," said Bermal. "If we're going to do it right, there's a lot involved. And you know, doing it wrong can tear a community apart."
The MinnErgy project is already behind schedule. It planned to break ground at the start of April. The earliest it could begin construction now is in August.