Sanitary district moving forward on policy allowing water sale

URBANA — Sanitary district officials are still moving toward the sale of treated wastewater to a proposed fertilizer plant in Tuscola while they continue to address concerns from environmental groups worried about the effect on local streams and rivers.

Illinois and Iowa are in a bidding war to attract Cronus Chemical, and a site in Tuscola is a leading contender. State officials have said that, at a minimum, the $1.2 billion project would produce as many as 2,000 construction jobs, and the Cronus plant would provide roughly 200 regular full-time jobs.

The fertilizer producer would need about 6.3 million gallons of water per day in its manufacturing process. A consultant for Cronus Chemical has asked the Urbana & Champaign Sanitary District for a direct flow of treated wastewater, instead of drawing clean drinking water.

Sanitary district Executive Director Rick Manner said, if officials go that route, the sale could produce $1 million or more annually in new revenue for the district. He said he cannot guarantee a cut in the fee charged to property owners, but $1 million represents about 10 percent of the district's annual income.

"I can't and won't guarantee a rate decrease, but I can say that because of that 10 percent coming in, we wouldn't have to go to the ratepayers for that," Manner said.

The three-member sanitary district board, with which the decision will ultimately lie, will meet on June 6. Manner said the Cronus proposal likely will not be on the agenda, but a policy the district has been developing to deal with the sale of wastewater and "biosolids" will be.

"That doesn't directly impact Cronus," Manner said. "However, since Cronus would be a sale, there is an indirect impact on that."

The district also had been informally approached by a company seeking water for a coal mine near Homer — to be named Sunrise Coal — but Manner said that deal is off the table.

"There is no proposal from them," Manner said. "We will not be considering any proposal from them."

The policy sets guidelines for how the district is to deal with such a sale of its wastewater to any outside entity. A draft of that policy said any sale should be financially beneficial to the district and "providing some minimum sustaining level of effluent discharge to support aquatic uses of the creeks during drought is highly desirable."

Representatives from the Sierra Club and Prairie Rivers Network have been regular attendees of those board meetings during the past few months. Because such a large volume of water would be diverted away from streams and evaporated in the fertilizer plant's manufacturing process, they worry about the effect it will have on stream levels and wildlife.

Manner said, if the sale were to proceed, the district plans to use some of the new revenue — as much as $500,000 during the next decade — to act as local matching dollars to free up even more state money for habitat projects to protect wildlife in the streams.

Kim Knowles, a staff attorney for Prairie Rivers Network, commented at the last board meeting that the proposal was moving too fast.

Manner said it is moving at an appropriate pace.

"I take some amount of pride in the fact that UCSD is working to see if we can accommodate this request in a reasonable fashion, still protect the environment and still protect the ratepayers' money," he said.

All of the discussion about Cronus Chemical could be moot, however, if a package of financial incentives, including a waiver of sales taxes on materials purchased to build the plant, does not get through the Illinois House of Representatives. The sales tax break is worth an estimated $14.5 million, and the Senate OK'd the legislation in a 51-0 vote last month.

"A critical stumbling block to the decision being made is the legislative action right now in the House," Manner said. "Without any action from the House, my understanding is that Cronus would not be interested in Illinois."

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ialdabaoth wrote on May 31, 2013 at 5:05 pm

If Cronus won't come here without $15 million in special tax breaks they can buzz off. We're better off without corporate neighbors of that sort.