When people think of spring, images of flowers in bloom, birds chirping and rabbits frolicking through a field come to mind. In Weyburn, this time of year also has a distinct smell to go with it. The aroma which wafts from the city’s NorAmera BioEnergy ethanol facility has become a part of spring time in the Opportunity City.
Susan Grohn, a Weyburn nurse and business owner who has lived in the city for over 30 years, said the smell can vary between two extremes.
“Most of the time it smells like yeast. On occasion, it can smell like a load of cattle,” Grohn stated.
The difference between the two odours comes from the purposes of the ethanol plant. One, obviously, is the production of ethanol. The process creates the smell of yeast because making ethanol involves liquefying, fermenting and distilling grain to create the more environmentally-friendly fuel source. The burning and drying of grains can create a smell which is similar to baking bread. This business is handled by NorAmera BioEnergy Corporation, whose majority shareholder is the Weyburn Inland Terminal.
The other job done at the ethanol plant can create a more pungent aroma. The ethanol plant also burns flax, straw and Specified Risk Materials (SRM) from the prairie slaughter industry to create a more sustainable source of thermal energy for their facility. This end of the business is undertaken by NorAmera Technologies Inc., which is also owned by W.I.T.
Lee de Vries, a special care aide at Tatagwa View, said the smell of burning animal products was very easy to identify.
“One day we opened up a window and a nurse I was working with said that smells like a burning animal carcass. She grew up on a farm and that is a smell that you don’t forget,” de Vries remembered.
For de Vries, the plant can have negative affects on her health. She has asthma and, if the wind is blowing in the right direction, it can affect her daily life.
“If the wind is blowing away from the city, I am fine. But, if it is blowing the right way and I am going to the Wal-Mart I bring my inhaler with me. If the wind is coming through the city, then I can’t go on walks for that long. I have a (respiratory) mask that I use sometimes to try to stop (asthma attacks). When the winds are coming I have to think about (what I can do more), I may have to use my medication a little bit more,” de Vries said.
When de Vries thinks back to when the plant opened, one piece of information sticks with her.
“When they opened the plant, they promised there would be no ill effects for anyone. I guess there is a miniscule amount of people like me that do have health problems or otherwise that get worse because of the plant being there,” de Vries explained.
The NorAmera BioEnergy ethanol facility is putting forth a plan with the provincial government to help stop the less-than-favourable aroma from continuing to be a problem.
“The first question we have is what is the issue and what is the best solution for it? We have been working very closely with the Environment minister and the ministry to try and find a solution,” said W.I.T. CEO Rob Davies.
According to Wes Kotyk, the executive director of the industrial branch of the Ministry of Environment, “there have been many steps taken to end the problem.”
“There has been a reduction in the amount of waste at the site (of the plant). Also, there has been an engineering study which showed there should be an increase to the height of the stacks at the plant, which they will be undertaking later this summer. We have also increased the monitoring of the ethanol plant and have not found anything to be harmful in it,” Kotyk said.
The ethanol plant is also part of a pilot project with the Ministry of Environment and the University of Saskatchewan to establish odour guidelines for these types of facilities.
“We are in the process of establishing (what the guidelines will look like). Odours are difficult to monitor; what is a bad smell to one person may not mean much to another. So, how you measure when an odour gets to be too much can be very difficult,” Kotyk explained.
Davies said “years ago we had a bad problem with the smell” and they still “ receive occasional complaints about it.”
“Once the really bad odour was gone there has not been as many complaints since,” Davies stated.
According to Kotyk, the ministry typically “hears complaints on occasion” and when they do they “do what can be done when a problem comes up.”
“If we get a series of complaints there is a protocol we follow. First we contact the company to let them know about the complaint. Then we look at the staff in the area and may go see what the City can do. If it is serious enough, we will go on site and might bring in a technical resources group to try and stop the problem,” Kotyk explained.
Even though the smell can be an annoyance to some, it has never been a problem to Nick Coroluick at Minard’s Leisure World. The popular recreational vehicle emporium is located in an open area in the south end of the city which can very easily be affected by the aroma emanating from the ethanol plant. However, Coroluick does not see it as much of a problem.
“It has never really hurt our business. There are occasional complaints; if there are 10 people on the lot maybe five will say something about it,” Coroluick said.
Coroluick also said the smell can be a little bit of a conversation starter around the lot. To Coroluick, the odor coming from the ethanol plant is reminiscent of “bread in the morning” and “some customers coming to the lot will ask if there is a bakery or a brewery around.”
“It has been an annoyance in the past, but since (W.I.T.) has taken it over it has been much better,” said Coroluick.
Though the ethanol plant does not have a big effect on the life and work of Coroluick, Lee de Vries has some trepidations about the future and sustainability of the facility.
“We have to be careful about what could be the long-term effects of (the ethanol plant). What is it going to do to the environment down the road? If they monitor it well, that is good. But, if they don’t, it could be really bad for our community,” said de Vries.