Citizens say a company's profits are being prioritized over the property values, crops, and health.
Sunman citizens turned out en masse at an Indiana Department of Environmental Management public meeting at Milan High School on Thursday, February 28. Photo by Mike Perleberg, Eagle Country 99.3.
(Milan, Ind.) - Sunman area citizens worried about whiskey fungus coming to their town addressed officials with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
Close to 100 people filled the Milan High School cafeteria for a public meeting about MGPI of Indiana’s air permit request (PDF).
“Our community’s profit and loss is based on our property values and our homes. If they are adversely affected because they are turning black, shouldn’t that be taken into consideration? If a company is allowed to make money, how come we have to lose money?” said Brad Rullman.
The company wants to store up to 320,000 barrels of whiskey in the former Deufol plant in Sunman. It sounds relatively harmless – a bunch of barrels sitting quietly in two existing warehouses for years until it comes time for the whiskey to be bottled.
However, the ethanol that evaporates from saturated wood barrels during the whiskey aging process causes a fungus, Baudoinia compniacensis, to grow on nearby buildings and plants, potentially harming property values and crops.
The mold has been visible on structures in Lawrenceburg and Greendale, where Seagrams first began producing whiskey at a distillery in 1857. MGPI now owns that distillery, but has been searching for more warehouse space to place barrels for the aging process.
In Lawrenceburg and Greendale, the distillery predates many of the homes and businesses. In the Sunman case, it is the distiller looking to move in, bringing some undesirable side-effects.
IDEM officials told citizens that the agency cannot regulate the airborne ethanol – also known as the “angel’s share” – because it is classified as a fugitive emission and is not on the list of contaminants the agency is required to regulate.
“Ethanol is not classified as a hazardous air pollutant. The EPA by statute or federal rule has set out 187 hazardous air pollutants by name and ethanol is not among them,” explained Doug Wagner, technical environmental specialist with IDEM's Office of Air Quality.
Wagner said IDEM enforces regulations established by the Indiana Environmental Rules Board. He said citizens can ask the IERB to consider adding ethanol vapor as a pollutant.
IDEM officials answered citizens questions. Photo by Mike Perleberg, Eagle Country 99.3.
IDEM indicated there is no viable technology to capture the ethanol emissions, which are estimated to be around 1,104 tons annually at the Sunman barrel house, according to the permit. Some devices have been used at other aging operations in the U.S., but it has been found to negatively affect the product quality of the whiskey.
Citizens spoke took exception with the idea that MGPI of Indiana’s profits are worth more than a town’s property values, businesses, and health.
“You’re just worried about some rules and we’re worried about our lives and our livelihoods. We have farmers here. We have people who have been on this property for centuries,” said Sunman resident Pat Scharf in an impassioned plea.
“We have to have this out of state company come in and destroy our community so that they can make money and they don’t’ even want to spend enough money to scrub the ethanol out of their air that they are going to destroy us with.”
Lisa Reihle’s family operates a popcorn farm near Sunman. She shared conversations she had with Purdue Extension agents, who told her that no research was found that the fungus affects crops in the field. But she still has questions about what recourse she and others will have if the fungus begins to negatively affect pre-existing businesses.
IDEM distributed an Indiana State Department of Health fact sheet about Baudoinia compniacensis at the meeting. It states there are no reports of health risks from the whiskey fungus to humans or animals.
The health department cited the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists in noting that ethanol vapor has chronic, non-cancerous health effects at concentrations of 2,200 micrograms per cubic meter or higher. IDEM’s air modeling has shown the Sunman operation’s peak concentration would be below that at just 1,300 micrograms per cubic meter.
There is little research on the impact to soil and water, but the health department says ethanol degrades quickly in the environment.
But one part of the ISDH handout did concern those at the meeting.
“Although there are no known health hazards, if you choose to remove the fungus from surfaces, we recommend you use N95 masks, goggles, and gloves during removal… If you choose to consume any produce visibly contaminated with Baudoinia compniacensis, or any fungus, we suggest thoroughly washing to remove any visible contamination,” the document states.
If the air permit is awarded to MGPI, citizens could appeal the decision to an environmental law judge. An appeal would institute a mandatory 15-day stay of the permit pending a hearing and the judge’s decision.
If allowed to stand, the permit would be active for five years. Renewal of the permit would require another application and a new round of public comment, according to IDEM officials.
Wagner welcomed citizens to continue to send in public comments on the air permit request through the March 4 deadline. Those comments will be considered in the decision-making and included in the addendum of the permit.
“We take every comment seriously. A lot of comments don’t deal directly with air permitting and we still try to respond to them in some way. The comments that are most beneficial for us are those that deal with the permit terms and conditions. Fugitive emissions comments are ones that we will certainly spend a lot of time responding to,” said Wagner.
But even if most of the comments may be against the whiskey barrel house operation, IDEM would still have to approve the permit if the company can adhere to the regulations spelled out in the permit.
“At this point, it doesn’t appear there is anything in the permit that they cannot comply with. If they can comply with all statutes and rules, then yes we are legally obligated to issue the permit,” said IDEM permit writer Jenny Acker.
No representative of MGPI of Indiana spoke at Thursday’s IDEM meeting.