To The Editor:
Generate Upcycle's Bill Caesar seems to have omitted a few issues lately when he has been in contact with the press. Reading both sides of this evolving story, it appears that EGLE, perhaps because it is now under a new director, began to look more closely at the AUA permit (Agricultural Use Approval) issued to Fremont Regional Digester (FRD). These types of permits generally have less oversight than the new type that is being required. Egle’s Director, Phillip Roos stated that part of the reason that the Fremont digester's AUA permit was even sent up any red flags in the first place, in part, was because of the ongoing and frequent odor and digestate spread issues/complaints that have occurred since FRD opened. There is a local Facebook group page devoted to problems that the digester has created for locals who live near the digester on Lake Drive and on M120 near the two 10 million gallon lagoons near Holton. I am unaware of any other local Facebook group page that has been created to deal with concerns and issues surrounding any other Newaygo county business. Similar Facebook pages are in existence in upstate New York where Generate and other companies run digesters. I think that this speaks to the problems that can arise in communities that have digesters and digestate lagoons in them. I am unsure if EGLEs new director has been reassessing all AUA permits or if this arose solely from the history of EGLE having to spend literally hundreds of hours up here with odor complaints from the digester, odor complaints at the lagoons, and a digestate spread that ran-off onto neighboring property, literally making a lake of smelly digestate in one man's yard near Holton and likely then making its way into the local watershed through drains and culverts. Mistakes get made while running any business, but from what I have seen over the past four years, little was done to try to correct mistakes in the first place and it took local residents bringing their concerns and frustrations to EGLE, over not being able to sit in their yards because of the stench, which resulted in fines and mandates forcing Fremont Regional Digester to work on odor issues among other things.
From what Mr. Roos states in his letter to Generate, an AUA permit was the incorrect type of permit for this type of highly liquid digestate in the first place. EGLE likely screwed up. It sounds like the letter that was sent to Generate Upcycle by EGLE's new Director, Phillip Roos, that EGLE is looking into that mistake. Finding a mistake of permitting type does not mean EGLE should continue to reissue the wrong type of permit - on the contrary, I would hope we all would feel that when a government body finds that it has likely made a mistake, that they rectify that mistake. The recent information presented by Generate Upcycle to the press and aired on WZZM was amended to include a letter that EGLE sent to Generate's Bill Caesar, presenting a fuller picture than was first presented by WZZM. I find it irresponsible of WZZM to have released the story without first contacting EGLE to get their take on where things are at in the permitting process. I would urge people to read the letter released by WZZM from EGLE to Generate Upcycle regarding the permit and why it no longer falls under the Solid Waste Division but instead under the Waste Water Division where it should have been in the first place.
The Email From EGLE
November 30, 2023
Bill Caesar, President Generate Upcycle
156 Magnolia St. Suite B Spartanburg, SC 29304
Dear Bill Caesar: This letter is being sent in response to the email you sent to Tim Boring and me on Sunday, November 26, 2023. In this email you raised a question around whether the facility’s digestate can be registered as a fertilizer. You also raised a variety of issues surrounding the groundwater permit being developed by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). Our responses to these items are as follows. Your request to classify digestate as an organic fertilizer could fundamentally change the permitting approach being pursued by EGLE. As you are likely aware, EGLE and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) staff met with the Generate team to discuss this question in March. While Generate had not formally requested a decision from MDARD at that time, it was discussed that the digestate does not contain nutrient value at the application rate required to meet required standards in respects to biological oxygen demand (BOD). Specifically, the application rate required to get 20 lbs of nitrogen per acre would exceed the BOD of the material by 5x. Generate is welcome to make a formal submission for a determination of whether the digestate can be licensed as a commercial fertilizer. However, if this information is correct, the material would not qualify as a fertilizer. Regarding the questions you are asking around “what has changed” and whether the facility should have been allowed to operate under an Agricultural Use Approval (AUA) over the years, we are asking our teams many of the same questions. While we do not currently fully understand the decisions the previous administration made regarding the AUA’s applicability, we are trying to understand the facility’s regulatory history. We will share that employees who were in EGLE when the facility was first opened by Novi Energy have described the residual materials following the digestion process being stored in piles. We have also identified a number of media reports associated with the opening of the facility nearly 20 years ago that describe the feedstock as manure, apple cores, and other solid materials. They contain very little mention of the highly liquid feedstock that the reports you have provided to ELGE illustrate. We have also been informed that the lagoons currently utilized by the facility to store its large volumes of digestate were not constructed, according to our records, until 2018.
While this historic information is incomplete at best, it does give an indication that decisions made by the previous administration on the applicability of the AUA were likely based on different digestate characteristics than the digestate the facility produces today. EGLE and MDARD will continue to evaluate its records to attempt to reconstruct these historical decisions. We welcome any additional input that Generate could provide in the interest of ensuring an accurate record. Understanding the historical, regulatory decision-making associated with your facility is of interest to both EGLE and MDARD, however it does not change the underlying situation we are working through today. Generate’s operation no longer qualifies for management under an AUA. As you are likely aware, facilities like Generate that are operating under an AUA have limited oversight, including infrequent inspections. Re-evaluation of the conditions that resulted in the issuance of an AUA does not routinely occur unless a problem is identified associated with the facility’s operation. In this case, odor and runoff problems caused by land application of the digestate generated by your facility led to closer scrutiny of the situation. Based on this closer evaluation, EGLE staff determined that the facility’s liquid residuals could not legally be authorized for land application under Michigan’s solid waste program, which can authorize the land application of solids and sludges. Liquid wastes applied to the ground require a different legal authorization - a groundwater discharge permit. This was communicated to Generate Fremont two years ago, and they have been allowed to continue to operate under the AUA while the groundwater permit is being developed. It is possible that we will determine that the AUA should have been terminated years ago. Although this determination was only made 2 years ago, we recognize that transition to an appropriate groundwater permit takes time. We have allowed the AUA to temporarily remain in place until the permit can be issued. You are correct in stating that EGLE has approved an additional extension of the AUA’s applicability through March 21. Your email did not include that EGLE had indicated to your lobbying firm and to you personally that we would be willing to consider extending the AUA through June 30, 2024, if additional work on the permit is necessary such that a March 21, 2024, extension is insufficient. Regarding the groundwater permit being drafted by EGLE, we will not be responding to all the specific statements contained in your draft letter that you state you intend to send to your customers. This is because the permit is not finalized and EGLE is still working in good faith with your company to ensure that only appropriate and necessary standards are incorporated into the permit. However, many of the statements made in that letter are not accurate and forthcoming of all of the circumstances being discussed. We will be prepared to respond to these inaccuracies in detail if necessary. It is our understanding that permitting conversations are progressing well between our technical teams. We recognize that Generate is not in agreement with some of the requirements that EGLE is proposing. We can assure you that this work has been prioritized within the agency and that we are committed to issuing a permit.
We are also committed to ensuring that the permit complies with the underlying laws, is protective of the environment, sets reasonable expectations based on the unique characteristics of the facility, and provides defensible, regulatory certainty for Generate. We can assure you that EGLE is not “trying to shoehorn FRD into a regulatory framework designed for industrial pollutants” as you contend. The statutory obligations being discussed with your company appropriately apply to a large variety of operations, including anerobic digestors. We do take note of your characterization of the permitting discussions as being “aggressive.” Our expectation is that all conversations with our agency are always respective and collaborative. We believe that this has been the case in our engagement with your team. However, we will ensure that all staff understand that this is our expectation. If your use of the word “aggressive” is descriptive of the agency holding firm on the minimum requirements that must be in a groundwater permit to meet the expectations listed above, you should not expect a different outcome. We recognize that the requirements of a groundwater permit are more restrictive than the requirements associated with operation under an AUA. This will likely require additional costs and changes to the operations of your facility. This is why EGLE is working to include reasonable timeframes in the permit to help the facility meet the new requirements. However, the liquid nature of the material and the underlying statutory expectations necessitates these differences. We recognize from what you have described to us that the facility is not currently profitable and has been operating a deficit since Generate acquired the property. We share your desire that your company is successful. We are committed to being flexible where possible, but we cannot compromise legally required and necessary environmental and public protections. It is our understanding that EGLE will be ready to provide a final draft of the groundwater permit in the very near future. The permit will be public noticed as provided by Michigan law and will allow additional deliberation on permit expectations in response to public comment. After a final permit is issued, Generate will have the ability to legally contest the permit if you believe that EGLE has issued a permit that is not in compliance with the statute and supporting regulations. We are hopeful that we will be able to reach an understanding on the necessary requirements applicable to your facility. We encourage Generate to continue to engage in good faith and provide the necessary information for EGLE to make its necessary permitting decisions. From past conversations with you it has been clear that you share our commitment to protecting Michigan’s groundwater and surface water resources. It is in that spirit that we are committed to continuing to collaborate with you and your company to achieve a reasonable and defensible outcome. Michigan’s citizens, especially those that rely on groundwater resources as their source of drinking water, deserve no less of either of our organizations.
Phillip D. Roos Director 517-284-6712
cc: Dr. Tim Boring, MDARD Aaron B. Keatley, Chief Deputy Director, EGLE
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