The Maryland Department of the Environment has given tentative approval for permits for two ethanol manufacturing plants near Baltimore's harbor that would be the first on the East Coast.
The agency's favorable action on the air pollution-control permits was announced last night at a public hearing in Curtis Bay where one of the plants would be built. The other is proposed for Sparrows Point in Baltimore County.
However, the decision could be reversed if public comments reveal problems that the state has not anticipated, officials told an audience of about 30 people at the Curtis Bay Recreation Center.
"The proposed facility can be expected to comply with all air quality regulations," said Suna Yi Sariscak, an air quality permits program official at MDE.
Three people in the audience raised objections, saying Curtis Bay already has too much air pollution. They said they were concerned about odors from the alcohol plant and rats that might be attracted by the corn used for distillation.
"It won't smell like a brewery?" asked Lola Hand, a neighborhood activist from nearby Glen Burnie.
"Boy, that would be pleasant compared to what we have now," joked Marge Huggins, also from Glen Burnie.
Randy Roy, president of Baltimore-based Atlantic Ethanol, told the audience that his firm would be "very aggressive in controlling any emissions" out of the factory in Curtis Bay.
Driven by federal mandates, rising demand for the corn-based fuel has spurred entrepreneurs to propose more than 50 new ethanol plants across the nation.
Atlantic Ethanol is planning to build its $100 million to $150 million ethanol factory on the site of a former chemical plant at 5501 Pennington Ave.
Roy said his plant would produce about 52 million gallons of the fuel a year and create about 100 jobs. He said the project would be completed by 2008 if it receives final approval.
"Most of the ethanol plants today are in the Midwest," Roy said. "We think Baltimore's economy will benefit from producing ethanol locally."
In an interview before the meeting, Roy said he wasn't discouraged by rising corn prices and slightly lower oil prices recently - factors that could make ethanol less profitable.
"We are still bullish on the ethanol market," Roy said.
In an effort to reduce American dependence on foreign oil, Congress in 2005 mandated that petroleum companies add 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol to the nation's fuel supply by 2012. That would make U.S. gasoline an average of 6 percent ethanol, double what it is now.
The MDE's tentative approval of an air pollution-control permit was based on emissions from similar plants in the Midwest, computer modeling and "manufacturers' guarantees," agency officials said.
Public comments are welcome through Feb. 27 and can be sent to MDE at 1800 Washington Blvd., Baltimore 21230.
Tonight at 7 o'clock, the state agency is holding a public hearing at the North Point Library, 1716 Merritt Blvd., on its tentative approval of the permit that would allow Ecron Inc. to build a $200 million ethanol plant in Sparrows Point. It would produce 110 million gallons of ethanol a year from 36 million bushels of corn.
Advocates of the fuel additive say ethanol reduces air pollution. But critics say using more crops for fuel drives up the price of food and can lead to more fertilizer pollution in waterways.
A third company, Chesapeake Renewable Energy, applied to the state Jan. 23 to build a $136 million ethanol plant in Somerset County.