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Posted on Tue, Apr. 12, 2005
Innovative turkey-to-oil plant eats money, spits out fowl odor
By KAREN DILLON The Kansas City Star
Photos by NORMAN NG/The Kansas City Star
"This is a first-of-a-kind plant in the world," said Paul Halberstadt, a vice president at the Renewable Environmental Solutions plant. Poultry waste is turned into crude oil at the Carthage facility. But it comes with a side effect - an unexplained stench. Halberstadt said the company has added scrubbers to reduce odors.
Carthage was promised an odor-free plant. That didn't happen. Now Mayor Kenneth Johnson worries that the town is getting a bad reputation. "This type of publicity isn't going to help tourism," he said.
CARTHAGE, Mo. - The eyes of the world have been on this Missouri town for several years to see if a New York businessman can really turn turkey leftovers into oil.
The answer: A resounding yes. In fact, a revolutionary plant is turning 270 tons of poultry waste into 300 barrels of crude oil every day.
That would be cause for wild celebration in many circles if not for two not-so-minor problems.
First, the plant is losing buckets of money, and second, some residents of the town that once welcomed it now pretty much hate it.
It turns out that process of cooking turkey guts, feathers, feces and other waste gives off a horrible stench.
"It's rotten," said Beth Longstaff, a resident who was shopping at Wal-Mart recently. "You can't get away from it. It's like something out of a horror movie."
Residents have responded with hundreds of complaints to company, city, state and federal officials.
The stink has sparked the concern of government officials, including members of Missouri's congressional delegation who helped the plant get federal grants to try the new technology.
Without the first $5 million grant, the plant probably never would have opened, but now it's burning through money so fast that the future is in doubt.
"My obstacles are enormous," said Brian Appel, the man behind the plant.
The turkey oil is much more expensive to produce than projected - the cost of a barrel is double what it sells for.
Appel told The Kansas City Star recently that he doubts the process can be financially successful in the United States for several years. His company, Changing World Technology, has put on hold plans to build more plants in Colorado, Alabama and Nevada.
Instead, he is considering a deal to build a plant in Ireland, where costs would be considerably less, and where a recent news article predicted a plant should be operating by next year. Appel also is negotiating with officials in Italy and Germany.
He doesn't know what the future of the Carthage plant holds, but he wants to make it work.
"I owe it to the people who have been really supportive of what we plan to do, to do everything in my power to turn that around," Appel said. But, he said, "I don't know how long I can keep funding this."
Several federal and state officials said they were unaware of Appel's negotiations overseas but haven't lost enthusiasm for the project.
"The congressman believes in the technology," said Dan Wadlington, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri.
"Two hundred tons of turkey guts and feathers, and you come up with 100 barrels of refineable oil - it's a heck of a deal."
Antiques and poultry
In 2000, Carthage officials celebrated when they learned their town would be home to the world's first commercial demonstration plant to turn turkey waste into oil.
Scientists had been tinkering with the technology for 30 years and it now seemed set to become a reality.
The southwest Missouri town had been better known for art and tourism than for pioneering industry.
The Precious Moments Chapel south of town has been a major attraction for years, and the town square, with one of the oldest courthouses in the state, is going through a rejuvenation of sorts. Trendy cafes have opened, and so have collectible and antique shops. Paintings, statues and sculptures decorate many spots around the square.
Just four blocks off the town square is the industrial district where Appel located the plant. It seemed logical because ConAgra's turkey Butterball plant was already there and would supply the offal to the plant.
Appel's company remains protective of the plant's technology.
After promising a 30-minute tour, a plant official on a recent rainy day would only show a reporter the outside of the facilities.
"This is a first-of-a-kind plant in the world," said Paul Halberstadt, a plant vice president.
Halberstadt explained visitors would have to dress in special clothing and heavy boots and take a safety course to get inside.
In general, though, he explained that turkey waste is pressure-cooked under extreme heat to produce oil.
The plant was expected to cost $15 million to build, a third of it supplied by a federal grant that U.S. Sen. Kit Bond and Blunt helped obtain.
But problems with the technology caused design problems early on. The plant had to be rebuilt at a cost closer to $40 million, with money coming from investors and ConAgra.
The repairs delayed operation until last year.
"Shame on us," Appel said. "We made mistakes. But we made the commitment to stick in with more monies."
Those weren't the only projections that were way off.
Initially, the company predicted the cost to make the oil would be a bargain - cheap in fact.
But today, a barrel of the grade 2 to 6 diesel oil costs almost $80 to make, Appel said, while the company buying the experimental oil is paying only about $40 a barrel under its contract.
Appel and his colleagues had assumed turkey waste would cost nothing because they expected the federal government to put a ban on feeding animal waste to animals. They estimated that processing plants would pay them $24 a ton to take away the offal.
But that didn't happen, and Appel now is paying $52 a ton for animal waste, he said.
Appel also had high hopes that he would get a $1-a-gallon biofuel tax credit for production costs, or about $42 per barrel. Congress did pass the tax credit, but the definition of biofuel excluded Appel's technology.
In Ireland, Appel said, the losses would be reversed because processing plants would pay him to take the waste and the government has a tax credit.
Meanwhile, Appel has three proposed plants in the United States on hold, along with more than $8 million in federal grants.
A tax credit and a ban on feeding animal waste to livestock are needed for the plant to become profitable, Appel said
The Blunt spokesman said there was still a chance that the plant would get a tax credit.
"We are exploring that because the energy bill is still a work in progress," Wadlington said.
"The congressman would like to find a solution."
Even if the finances turn around, Appel has to figure out how to get rid of the overwhelming smell.
He's spent a $12 million federal grant he received last year in part trying to fix the problem.
He promised before the plant was built that it would be an odor-free operation, and the Carthage mayor and townsfolk haven't forgotten.
For more than a year, the smell would creep up the hill from the plant to the town square and then envelope the town.
Then, in October, it became decidedly worse.
One day recently, Halberstadt acknowledged that the smell was really rank, but said the company was doing everything it could to fix it. He showed off the new scrubbers that had been put in place to reduce odors.
Residents have complained that the smell makes them retch.
One said he was even afraid to let the dog go outside.
Ann Carter, who owns Epicurean Delights, a wine, cheese and gourmet food store, said the first time she smelled the odor, she went outside and checked in the alley to see if something was there.
"It was worse than a farm smell," Carter said. "I figured something had died."
Mayor Kenneth Johnson worries that the town is getting a bad reputation.
"This type of publicity isn't going to help tourism," Johnson said.
And on March 18, Blunt, Bond and Sen. Jim Talent wrote a letter to Doyle Childers, the director of Missouri Department of Natural Resources, asking that his agency find the source of the odor.
"The plant ... has great promise, with the hope of reducing our dependency on foreign oil," they wrote. "We do not want this technology to fail."
The Department of Natural Resources has cited the plant in recent weeks with two violations for odors and pollution - two truck trailers were found spilling blood and water or meat byproducts onto a roadway.
Childers, who visited the plant two weeks ago, said he also spoke with Gov. Matt Blunt.
Childers said odor agents are installing new monitoring devices to collect data and try to determine where the smell is coming from.
The process should take about 45 days.
"The governor said he wants this done," Childers said.
"We don't want to jeopardize a technology that could eventually be very important to really our whole country. Everybody said they want to work together."
Appel blamed a handful of vocal critics in town for most of the complaints, and said that some of the smell could be coming from other plants.
But Appel said he didn't want to make excuses for the plant's problems.
"We never built one of these plants and we didn't know what to expect when we pressed the gas pedal all the way to the floorboard," he said.
To reach Karen Dillon, call
(816) 234-4430 or send e-mail to email@example.com
* A pioneering plant in Carthage, Mo., already is producing 300 barrels of oil a day from poultry waste.
* But it won't stop losing money unless it gets a couple of changes in federal law, the owner says.
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