The barn smells never fazed her. But the stench passing over her house these days in Carthage makes her want to gag. "There are really just no words to describe it," she says. "The smell is so horrible." If it makes her think of anything, she says, it's a corpse, rotting in the sun right there on her lawn. The reek sometimes lasts an hour or two. Sometimes it stays all day. "I have vomited in my yard," she says.
Orr lives with her husband, David, just outside Carthage, a picturesque town of 13,000 situated 140 miles south of Kansas City. They're both in their fifties. David works in a warehouse used by the cheese-maker Schreiber Foods, and Trisha works part time at a candy store. A pool in the backyard gives their grown children incentive to visit during the summer. But swims have been infrequent in recent years. What Trisha calls an idyllic life has been interrupted by a nauseous smell that keeps the couple indoors. "You wouldn't want to have friends over for drinks or a barbecue," she says.
Orr says she first noticed the odor in the late summer of 2003. She thought a neighbor had left something toxic on the curb for trash collectors. When the stench persisted, another neighbor checked his barn for a dead animal. The following year, Orr says, she noticed the foul odor more days than not. Weeks have gone by this year when she hasn't smelled it. But lately, she says, the air has again been rank.
The complaints aren't confined to the outskirts of Carthage. In the center of town, at Carthage Senior High School, Assistant Principal Kandy Frazier says visitors often ask where the smell is coming from. "It's a terrible odor," she says, "and it permeates everything when it gets into the building."
It didn't take long for residents to pin the blame on the Renewable Environmental Solutions plant, known locally as RES. It was the new business in town, and though the industrial park in which it sits has a history of emitting bad smells, this stench was new and worse. Over the next 18 months, complaints grew so numerous the smells were reported at 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Sundays that this past July, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources set up a temporary office in Carthage and began to monitor the air daily.
Renewable Environmental Solutions, with headquarters in Naperville, Illinois, began as a joint venture between Changing World Technologies Inc. of West Hempstead, New York, and ConAgra Foods Inc. of Omaha, Nebraska. The facility is the first of its kind in the world. And it's the focus of worldwide attention on the potential of deriving profitable alternative fuel sources from organic waste. The high cost of oil is a major reason why industries are counting on the success of "green" technology. Just last week, Richard Branson, the head of Virgin Atlantic Airways, announced his intention to explore plant-based ethanol to power his airline fleet.
RES is located a half-mile from Carthage's town square and a few hundred feet from ConAgra's Butterball Turkey Company in the Carthage industrial bottoms along the Spring River. Butterball provides RES with its alternative fuel source: turkey offal slaughterhouse leftovers, including guts, bones, feathers and blood. What put RES on the map is its technology, which the company claims can take carbon-based material that is, almost any organic matter, because all life on Earth is based on the carbon molecule and recycle it into oils, gas and minerals for use as fuel and fertilizer. Thermal conversion process (TCP) accelerates the process in nature by which organic matter dead dinosaurs, for example is heated and pressurized over millions of years to become fossil fuel. The plant handles 200-250 tons of material from Butterball a day and produces 400-500 barrels of oil.
When RES opened in 2003, the media and the scientific community hailed the technology as a solution to America's dependence on foreign oil, global warming, contaminated feedstock and landfill shortages. That was just for starters. The New York Times Magazine's 2003 "Year in Ideas" issue cited RES, noting that "the day might yet come when we'll turn everything we don't want into the very stuff that, like it or not, makes our world go around." Scientific American named RES's parent company, Changing World Technologies, to its "list of winners," a prized spot among the top 50 innovators of 2003. Money magazine called Changing World Technologies "the Next Big Thing." MIT Technology Review, Fortune, Fast Company and Business Week were just some of those who weighed in on the technology's potential. And in Discover magazine, a story called "Anything Into Oil" described how the technology could ultimately produce 4 billion barrels of light crude oil a year roughly half the amount that the United States used in 2001. Investors including ConAgra, the New York real-estate investment firm Sterling Equities and tire distributor Max Finkelstein have poured $100 million into Changing World Technologies, according to its 47-year-old CEO, Brian Appel.
Chemistry, it appeared, had caught up with science fiction, recalling the time-traveling DeLorean that runs on garbage scraps in the movie Back to the Future.
The rescue of the planet, however, has tried the patience of local residents.
On a clear November day, Camille Dobler, an environmental specialist with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, guides her state-issued blue Ford Taurus into the city's industrial bottoms. RES and Butterball aren't the only plants in the industrial park; Schreiber Foods, Archer Daniels Midland Milling (ADM) and the Carthage wastewater pump station are also located here. But the 10,000-square-foot RES plant stands out among the bland industrial sites. It resembles an oil refinery or chemical plant. Gleaming storage tanks rise up like silos and grain elevators. Pipes wind along the exteriors and hint at the complexity of the operation. (Laid end to end, those pipes would, the company says, stretch 4 miles.)
Dobler comes to a halt near a levee along the Spring River. This is her third inspection of the day. She and other state inspectors come to the RES site as often as 30 times in a week, she says, almost always during business hours on weekdays. (The RES plant generally runs 24 hours a day for three to five days a week, according to a plant official.) Dobler walks the levee until she reaches a point where she's downwind from the facility, about 100 yards away and separated by a fence. A U.S. flag atop the plant helps her gauge wind direction.
The air here smells a little like gym socks. After a moment, the stench of blood is noticeable.
"Yes, we may get some odors now because they're rinsing out a truck," Dobler says, nodding. In the distance, a man with a hose is standing behind an open dump truck parked beside an RES building. (The runoff, Dobler explains, is captured by a drain and taken inside the plant.) Turkey offal is ferried from Butterball to RES between 12 and 15 times a day. Tankers carrying blood are sealed; truckloads of other turkey parts are covered with tarp.
Dobler has inspected enough operations to recognize certain smells. "You put that odor in your memory and remember 'This is turkeys,'" she says. But determining if an odor exceeds state regulations requires a more sophisticated tool than memory. To measure degree, she and the other inspectors use a low-tech device called a Scentometer. It's the approximate shape and size of a cigar box, with two protruding glass bulbs. She presses both bulbs to her nostrils and inhales. Charcoal filters housed inside the box dilute the air before it reaches her nasal passages. If she can detect a scent in the diluted air (of one part ambient air to seven parts clean air), the odor is deemed objectionable. If she smells nothing, the air is OK.
On this inspection, she detects no odor. The plant is in compliance. The RES facility falls within compliance most days. But not always. "When they do smell, it's bad," Dobler says.
Since March, the state has cited the plant for excess emissions on six occasions; each violation carries a possible $10,000 fine. (RES also picked up a water-pollution violation when two truck trailers were seen spilling blood onto the driveway at the facility's entrance.) A violation-of-odor ruling occurs when an inspector detects a smell twice in a rather complicated process: The second detection must occur after 15 minutes but no later than an hour from the time that the first detection is made. The offending facility can avoid a violation if it can show that the smell was caused by an equipment malfunction or that it was part of the normal startup or shutdown procedures.
The methods and rules make it rare for the Department of Natural Resources to issue an odor violation. "It takes some pretty intense odor to qualify under state regulation," says Mark Rader, the DNR's air and water section chief in Springfield. Since January 2000, in fact, the DNR has received 2,287 complaints from across the state but has issued just 42 violation notices, according to an analysis by The Joplin Globe. One reason is that the evidence can vanish in an instant. "We get so many complaints where the caller says, 'It doesn't smell now, but it did then,'" explains Rader.
Carthage residents, including Trisha Orr, grumble that state and local officials haven't responded aggressively to their complaints. Orr maintains that she heard little or no response from public officials for over a year. She registered her first formal complaint against RES in early 2004. By that August, she was collecting signatures on petitions. When she took her petitions, with more than 600 signatures, to a Carthage City Council meeting on August 24, the council members showed little interest in pursuing complaints. In fact, after the meeting, Mayor Kenneth Johnson "just flat out told us there was no odor," she claims.
But as the facility began to expand its operations to handle larger amounts of turkey byproduct, more residents noticed an enveloping stench. For a time, a steady northerly wind carried air from the bottoms through the heart of town. Finally, this past February, Johnson sent a letter to RES officials and members of Congress, expressing "deep concern" about the smell and citing "assurances" made by the company against "adverse environmental impact from the operations."
On March 18, Missouri Sens. Kit Bond and Jim Talent and Rep. Roy Blunt wrote a letter asking Doyle Childers, director of the Department of Natural Resources, to take action. The department and city officials met with RES and other businesses in the bottoms and put them on notice. In April, the city of Carthage and Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon filed a public-nuisance lawsuit against RES.
"The stench was serious enough, in our view, that it was necessary to get the courts involved," says Jim Gardner, a spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office. Blunt, who had helped secure a $12 million federal grant for the RES plant in 2003, and other officials spent part of their Memorial Day this year at Trisha Orr's home. Over hot dogs and baked beans, the congressman declared that the odor situation was "not acceptable."
Like other communities that have worked to retain a historical feel, Carthage, which bills itself as "America's Maple Leaf City," guards its quality of life. The town is renowned for its Victorian homes and impressive Romanesque Revival courthouse as well as for its annual Maple Leaf Festival, held each fall and attracting tens of thousands of visitors. Every August, thousands of Vietnamese Catholics gather in Carthage to celebrate their lives in America. (A Vietnamese order of priests settled in Carthage after the Vietnam War.)
Of course, industrial agriculture has changed the town through the decades. And the changing labor force has left its own imprint, evident in the growing Hispanic population. Down in the bottoms, the Butterball plant, for instance, reportedly slaughters 30,000 turkeys a day and has been cited by the state for blood spills and other violations 14 times since 1990, according to the Sierra Club. The cheese-processing plant, has been cited for air pollution as well.
But the RES plant presented the community with a more sudden and obvious disruption, according to some residents. Carthage was pleased to be home to a facility that promised to revolutionize the definition of reusable energy. (The plant employs approximately 35 people and pays well. "Those are $20-an-hour jobs, which is a pretty good boost to your economy," Johnson told the Pitch.) But the stink has now brought fears of decreased tourism and falling property values. And word of the town's predicament has spread. In April, a resident of Alba, 10 miles to the northwest, wrote a letter to The Carthage Press that began: "PEEEEEEEEEEEEUUUUUUUUUUUUUU Carthage!" Jan O'Haro, who owns a bed and breakfast on the outskirts of town, says, "We're known as the town that stinks."
RES responded to the nuisance lawsuit by agreeing in May to upgrade its "scrubber," a cylindrical tower that forces air emissions through packing material treated with an odor-killing chemical. The company also agreed to install a larger thermal oxidizer, which uses extremely high temperatures to destroy odors.
Dobler, the Department of Natural Resources inspector, speaks frequently to RES officials (phoning to discuss complaints, visiting the plant to pinpoint sources of odor) and describes them as responsive. She has spoken several times with CEO Appel. "You just see his enthusiasm," she says. "He wants to get odors under control." Unlike some operators, she notes, RES has been quick to address problems.
At the same time, company officials dispute accusations that the plant is the sole or even the main air polluter in town. A plant spokeswoman, Julie Gelfand, tells the Pitch that repeated odor complaints have been lodged on days when the plant wasn't in operation or when wind conditions were inconsistent with the complaints. "RES has become a scapegoat," she says. And CEO Appel tells the Pitch the Carthage site was chosen in part because the bottoms had existing odor issues. "Why do you think we went there?" he asks.
Denials don't endear the company to Carthage residents. "RES has said it wasn't them who were creating the odor," says Greg Galbraith, who owns a paint shop in town. "I don't think there were too many people who believed that."
O'Haro, the owner of the bed and breakfast, agrees. "They're trying to blame it on the other plants around there now," she explains. "But it's funny we never ever had those odors until the RES plant moved in."
Appel says it's "preposterous" for residents to suggest that odor wasn't a problem in Carthage before RES arrived. Still, in just four months, the Department of Natural Resources tagged RES with more violations than had been issued to other facilities in the industrial bottoms in the previous eight years. Almost 500 complaints about odor in Carthage have been filed in the past two years, says DNR section chief Mark Rader; prior to RES's arrival, yearly complaints routinely fell in the single digits.
This October's Maple Leaf Festival brought more complaints (even the mayor said he smelled something) and more rebuttals from the company. Gelfand says the plant didn't operate during the festival weekend, but Rader says odor can escape the stacks even when materials are not being processed.
RES continues to negotiate with the Department of Natural Resources, the state Attorney General's Office and the city. At the request of city officials, the plant halted operations on Halloween, relieving trick-or-treaters of the risk of making their rounds under a stink cloud. City Attorney David Mouton told the Carthage City Council on November 8 that RES had made "significant strides," according to an account in The Carthage Press.
P.J. Samson, the RES plant president, who lives in suburban Chicago, pleads for patience for the innovative facility. (The Pitch was not granted a tour.) "There's no book on this," he says in a phone interview. "It's not like, 'Let's go to page 32. What do you do?'"
RES officials say the company has spent $1.5 million on new equipment to reduce odors. Samson adds that addressing residents' complaints is important for two reasons. "We want to be labeled a green technology," Samson says. "And we want to be able to take this wherever we want to go. We're committed to do that, and we'll get there."
Taking the technology anyplace should be a lot easier with the passage in July of a revised 2005 federal energy bill. The revisions, reportedly added after intense lobbying, allow Changing World Technologies to fall within the definition of eligibility for federal biodiesel tax credits, valued at $1 a gallon. Last April 5, the company was apparently so distressed over its exclusion under 2004 standards that CEO Appel announced on the company's Web site that he was putting plans for expansion on hold. The Kansas City Star quoted him on April 12: "I don't know how long I can keep funding this." The tax credit will prove a timely windfall for the company; RES is still behind its projected production capacity of 500 tons of turkey offal a day.
The company, having learned from the RES experience, could build a similar plant for $25 million, Appel tells the Pitch. The Carthage facility cost around $40 million (Congress provided grants totaling $17 million) to build, more than twice the original estimate. Appel hopes the operation will be profitable once the tax credits go into effect in January. Stories about odor complaints, he adds, obscure the progress RES has made. "The most amazing thing," he says, "is that we got the magic part to work, that you were able to take this nasty material and turn it into renewable diesel that we were able to sell."
Attempts to mimic the process that turned dinosaurs and ferns into methane and petroleum are not new.The trick to replicating and accelerating nature is to solve the riddle of energy balance. For example, is the ethanol derived from corn worth the energy and cost required to grow the crop and transform it into a liquid that can fuel a car?
The front end of the thermal conversion process in Carthage looks like any rendering plant that accepts slaughterhouse waste. A truck from Butterball backs into the RES receiving building, lifts its trailer and tips its load into a long, rectangular tank. A conveyer belt feeds the material forward into a grinder, which reduces the material into a paste, or slurry, that Samson says looks like watery peanut butter.
The slurry then passes into a reactor, where heat and pressure begin to break apart the molecular chains. A third step of the process "flashes" the slurry to a lower air pressure, vaporizing some of the water contained in the waste. (The steam is sent back through a pipe to a stage earlier in the process, where it warms incoming batches of material.) A second reactor subjects the remaining organic material to more heat, further cracking the molecular chains. From there, fermentation tanks and centrifuges sort the organic material. The oils are separated by molecular weight; the gases are used to power the system.
Converting organic material, or biomass, to oil is difficult because the waste material holds water, and energy is required to separate the water from the oil. Changing World Technologies' process strives for efficiency by using the water molecule and the oxygen it contains in the conversion process. Leaving in the water helps conduct the heat, a benefit when the slurry is cooked to 500 degrees Fahrenheit in the first reactor.
Changing World Technologies says the process turns 100 pounds of slaughterhouse waste into 39 pounds of oil, 6 pounds of gas, 5 pounds of solid carbon and 50 pounds of water. The oil, similar to No. 4 or No. 6 crude, is sold to customers for use as boiler fuel.
Crude oil sells for close to $60 a barrel today, making thermal conversion more than just an effective way to dispose of truckloads of turkey parts. With oil prices rising, thermal conversion has significant potential, says Daniel Kammen, Ph.D., a professor of nuclear engineering and co-director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. "There's no reason why these plants can't become the norm," he says.
Professor Kammen is familiar with the Carthage plant, but he says he was unaware of the odor problem. One possible source, he suggests, is the stage at which the material is slurried. Another is when it reaches the fermentation tanks, which, he explains, are like cows' stomachs in the way they use enzymes to break down material. The tanks, he says, must release pressure and bring in oxygen essentially dispersing "stomach" air.
Yuanhui Zhang, Ph.D., an agricultural engineering professor at the University of Illinois, has developed a similar system for converting pig manure to oil. It's "a viable means for renewable energy production," he tells the Pitch. But controlling odor, he adds, is neither easy nor inexpensive.
As for the energy-balance question, Changing World Technologies claims the process is more than 80 percent efficient, meaning that for every 100 units of energy produced, fewer than 20 are needed to run the process. Kammen and other researchers would like to see the data to prove that claim, but Changing World Technologies, a privately held company, selects what information it shares. "CWT has been really tight-lipped," Kammen says, echoing other researchers. The company refuses to disclose its per-barrel costs or revenues. Spokeswoman Gelfand says early numbers CWT reported were "taken out of context."
CEO Appel says he learned about thermal conversion in 1996 from a contact made through the Young Presidents' Organization, an international network of business executives. Appel's background is not in science but in business. The 6-foot-4-inch Appel played guard on the Hofstra University basketball team. After graduating in 1980, he worked as a sales representative for Kansas City-based Russell Stover Candies. Later he joined Ticket World U.S.A. (which merged with Ticketmaster in 1985), before going into commodities trading. He eventually acquired a controlling interest in Changing World Technologies, a company that held the patents to a process for making energy from organic waste but had been unable to commercialize it. After Appel took over, the company built a pilot facility at the Philadelphia Navy Yard before building the commercial plant in Carthage. "If you look at what begets what, there's 3,000 people with ideas about how you can convert organic material into a useful product," says Appel. "But there's only one that we know of that works, and that's ours."
The odor complaints frustrate the CEO, who says the plant gets blamed for every bad smell in town. "We're the odor hot line," he says. Appel is critical of residents but credits state and local officials for not taking a confrontational stance. He says he feels "blessed" that Missouri's attorney general and the Department of Natural Resources have tried to work with him.
Changing World Technologies may build its next facility overseas, but not because of its experience in Carthage. Company officials had hoped the threat of mad cow disease would prompt the federal government to restrict the use of dead poultry and other animals in cattle feed. Restrictions would make dead poultry almost worthless a boon for RES and future waste-to-oil plants, which would then pay little or nothing for their raw materials or even charge to take them. (Changing World Technologies says thermal conversion destroys the malformed proteins believed to cause mad cow.)
But the federal government continues to allow carcasses to be used in livestock feed, so dead animals retain their market value which adds an extra $20-$30 a barrel to CWT's costs, Appel says. As a result, he's looking to expand in Europe, where more restrictions are in place.
Appel suggests that future sites might be in Great Britain or Germany. "However, I'm a patriot. I'm not giving up here."
Neither is Carthage resident Trisha Orr. As the plant's fiercest critic, she says she'll continue to press public officials for a resolution. And she'll light up the DNR complaint line until the stench disappears. If it doesn't, she and her husband will have to consider selling their house. "If I could get what we paid into it," she says, "we'd be out of here so quick." "Sometimes