Despite reports the operator of a troubled manure digester near Waunakee is all but bankrupt, County Executive Joe Parisi says the taxpayer-backed pilot project remains viable.
“Yes, I’m frustrated but it would be a mistake to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Parisi told reporters last Thursday during announcement of a separate $1.6 million USDA grant to address pollution from area farms.
Parisi was responding to a story last week about ongoing troubles at the Dane County Manure Handling Facility in the town of Vienna, one of two digesters the county has developed using $6.6 million in state grants.
A Wisconsin-based dairy marketing monthly The Milkweed last week published a stinging report on the digester, saying it has failed to meet pollution reduction goals while costing local governments and school districts in lost tax revenues. A provision in Gov. Scott Walker’s last budget expressly exempts biogas facilities from property taxes.
Opened in 2010 in the town of Vienna, the facility operated by Milwaukee-based Clear Horizons LLC has been nagged by problems, including three highly publicized manure spills and a series of environmental violations. In November, the state Department of Natural Resources referred the case to the Department of Justice for enforcement action.
But Parisi — who has tied cleaning up Madison lakes to reducing runoff from farm operations — urged patience in getting the digesters running effectively and profitably.
“The science is clear and we now know what needs to be done,” he said.
Parisi says the county has been urging Clear Horizons to take all necessary actions to ensure the safe and efficient operation of the facility, including finding a different operator to manage the plant.
“You’ve got to remember this is a privately run business,” he said. “The county’s role is to bring everyone together to help make sure it’s working.”
Parisi also emphasized the energy production component of the digesters. Methane gas captured by the process is burned to produce electricity. The Clear Horizons project generates about 1 megawatt of electricity, enough to light about 5,000 homes.
The Clear Horizons project was pitched by officials as the solution to waste management problems on large livestock operations.
But it has failed to meet a DNR-mandated target of a 60 percent reduction in phosphorus from manure collected at the facility. A June 2014 report found that just a third of the phosphorus was being removed from the waste before it is spread on the ground.
The Clear Horizons facility was also cited by the DNR for spills totaling 400,000 gallons of manure, failing to remove enough phosphorus from the animal waste before it is spread on fields and violating monitoring requirements.
Dane County has since funded another manure digester outside of Middleton in the town of Springfield. That project is being done in conjunction with Gundersen Health Systems but is using better technology that will remove more phosphorus from the waste stream, according to county policy director Dave Merritt.
The Milkweed report contends that Clear Horizons, which has a 15-year contract to operate the facility, owes $55,000 to the town of Vienna for road improvements and maintenance. The “bankruptcy” term was used by town clerk Shawn Haney in a Dec. 15 report to the town board.
“Clear Horizons has been saying for months that it doesn’t have money to pay the Town of Vienna,” Haney told the Milkweed. “The only question is which bankruptcy court they will be filing.”
Clear Horizons has declined to comment on its financial status and did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this report.
The USDA grant announced Thursday would go for smaller animal waste control efforts like putting roofs over feed lots to keep the rain from washing manure onto the land.
Dane County has also committed $10 million in its budget this year for projects aimed at reducing phosphorus loading in the watershed. ￼