Sanitary district board is expected to get a look at contract today, but not vote on it
URBANA — Steps to bring a $1.2 billion fertilizer plant to Douglas County continue to be taken, as the Urbana Champaign Sanitary District board again looks at piping large amounts of its treated wastewater to Tuscola.
Under a sales contract board members are expected to see when they meet at 10 a.m. Thursday at district headquarters, 1100 E. University Ave., U, the district would divert as much as 6.3 million gallons per day of effluent to Cronus Chemical in Tuscola, should the fertilizer plant choose to locate there.
That treated wastewater would be diverted from the Copper Slough and Saline Branch creeks, a move that has environmentalists worried about the health of the area's streams and rivers. The deal depends on whether Cronus even chooses the Tuscola site over a contender in Iowa — the company has yet to announce where it plans to build.
Gov. Pat Quinn has already signed a $30 million incentive package to lure Cronus to Illinois. The $1.2 billion plant would bring an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 construction jobs during the 36-month building project, and the Cronus plant would provide as many as 200 permanent, full-time jobs.
A Cronus spokesman said in December that an announcement could come early this year. Sanitary district officials have dialed back their expectations on how quickly they'll know.
"It appears that they would like to have all of their ducks in a row before they make a site announcement," said executive director Rick Manner. "I'm not expecting a site announcement for a while. We are one of the ducks that they're trying to get in a row."
The debate over the wastewater has been ongoing for nearly a year — the "90 percent complete" contract presented to the board Thursday is a product of back-and-forth discussions between district officials and environmental groups, Manner said. A vote on the contract is not expected Thursday, but the Prairie Rivers Network is encouraging residents to attend the meeting and voice their concern.
"I can't say that we've addressed every one of their concerns because some of their concerns are not things that we're going to agree about," Manner said.
Prairie Rivers Network staff attorney Kim Knowles said the group does not feel like its worries have been addressed and it still has "major concerns." They want more assurance that adequate discharge to streams will be maintained during dry periods and assurance that the revenue from the water sale would be used to ward off higher sanitary rates.
They are also worried about Cronus, a largely unknown company that incorporated in Delaware in November 2012. Knowles said that means its environmental compliance and safety record is also an unknown.
The group plans to raise those issues again at Thursday's meeting.
"What we would like to do is just pose a series of questions and see if they'd like to respond," Knowles said.
The district discharges roughly 20 million to 25 million gallons of water per day after it is cleaned through chemical and biological processes, and environmentalists say that flow is very important to recreation and wildlife in the area's streams and rivers. They believe diverting up to 6.3 million gallons per day away from those streams could be harmful.
Cronus would need large amounts of water in its production process, but it doesn't need to be drinking quality. The fertilizer plant would pay the district somewhere between $2 million and $3 million annually for the effluent.
Manner points out that piping the water to the plant would have a cost, too — expected to be about $1 million per year. Still, the district expects a "solid $1 million" per year in net benefit to the district's bottom line.
To put that in perspective, the district runs about a $12 million annual budget.
"It would be a substantial improvement on our bottom line," Manner said. "It doesn't make or break the district financially."
The district is also working on paying down $55 million in debt, Manner said. The ultimate consequence of the water sale would be that the district would not need to raise sanitary rates on property owners as quickly as otherwise.
"This would be very beneficial in helping us get back to a more balanced situation," Manner said.