5 takeaways from the Jack Daniel, 3 Rivers Energy Town Hall

3 Rivers Energy Partners’ John Rivers, Jack Daniel’s Melvin Keebler, and 3 Rivers Energy Partners’ David Johnson address questions from the crowd during Tuesday’s Town Hall. (Lynchburg Times Photo)

LYNCHBURG, Tenn. — BTUs of methane, and fertilizer pH levels, and microbes oh my. Around 40 locals gathered to ask questions and voice concerns about a proposed anaerobic digester in Lynchburg and left with a chemistry degree.

On Tuesday, the Jack Daniel Distillery and representatives from 3 Rivers Energy Partners co-hosted a town hall-style meeting at the Jack Daniel Employee Resource Center to address comments, concerns, and questions from community members over a proposed anaerobic digester project to be built along Good Branch Road in Moore County.

Folks in Lynchburg first learned 3 Rivers Energy and the proposed anaerobic digester in a May 19 letter from Jack Daniel General Manager Larry Combs handed out to local slop haulers to express the distillery’s intention to move away from the Feeder Cow Program. In it, Combs explained the distillery’s plan to phase out the Feeder Cow Program as the distillery continued to increase capacity to meet the world’s demand for our Tennessee Whiskey.

“We recently entered into a partnership with 3 Rivers Energy (3RE), a green energy technology provider, to pivot from our traditional by-product’s expansion,” the letter explained. “As a result of the plant coming online in the fall of next year, we wanted you to be among the first to know that the Feeder Cow Program will slowly be phased out over the next two years.”

Agricultural and environmental concerns

Understandably, the letter caused quite a stir in the local farming community. For almost as long as there’s been a distillery in Lynchburg, there’s been a Feeder Cow Program, in which local farmers haul off spent distiller grains or slop to feed area cattle. 

It’s a program that’s become a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand, some agricultural experts estimate that the Feeder Cow Program brings as much as $40 million per year in agricultural value to local farmers. On the other hand, Moore County remains in the the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation’s (TDEC) cross hairs because of excessive E. coli in local streams caused by runoff from cattle feedlots — a fact Combs alluded to in our May 23 interview with him about the Feeder Cow Program. {To read that interview, click here.}

During a May 27 public meeting about the slop program, Jack Daniel’s reversed course and compromised with local farmers. In that meeting, Combs explained that the distillery would continue to offer slop to existing customers at the current capacity until the proposed 3 Rivers Energy anaerobic digester plant comes online in around 18 months. Then slop capacity would be at about half until JD II comes online. {To read our coverage of that meeting, click here.}

Special agricultural land use exception

That plan requires local land use and building approvals – a process that began in July when representatives from 3 Rivers Energy appeared before the Metro Planning Commission to request a special land use exception — one similar to one granted to the Silicon Ranch Corporation to build a solar panel farm in Moore County.

In both cases, rather than rezone the land from agricultural to industrial, both companies sought a land use exception to the Metro Zoning Ordinances that would allow this particular industrial build while not opening up the land to any industrial build. In 3 Rivers Energy’s case, they wanted an exception that would allow a “distillery by-products processing facility” on land zoned A1 (agricultural). It’s a move the Metro Planning Commission recommended to the Metro Council during their June meeting. During that meeting, the Metro Council voted unanimously to approve the first reading of that zoning ordinance change. The Metro Council approved the second but not the third reading during the July meeting mainly due to push back from several local citizens who spoke during the public hearing.

In response, Jack Daniel’s and 3 Rivers Energy officials planned a Town Hall meeting for Tuesday. The Times staff attended that meeting and here were the main takeaways:

1 | It’s not that 3 Rivers Energy. Prior to Tuesday night’s town hall, some locals on social media circulated an article about an explosion at a Three Rivers Energy ethanol plant in Ohio. Three Rivers Energy LLC located in Coshocton, Ohio and 3 Rivers Energy Partners are not the same company. “Totally separate company and totally separate process,” 3 Rivers Energy Partners CEO John Rivers said during the meeting. {If you’d like to learn more about the company spearheading the Lynchburg project, click here .}

2 | An industrial rezoning would be easier for 3 Rivers but an agricultural zoning would be better for Lynchburg. The Metro Planning Commission suggested the special land use exception to the Metro Council and 3 Rivers Energy Partners based on the precedent set by the solar farm project. It allows the industry in question to use the land for a specific purpose rather than opening it up to an industrial rezoning that would follow the land regardless of owner. During the meeting John Rivers stated that an industrial zoning would be “better for them” but that an agricultural zoning would be more restrictive and better for Lynchburg. “If this were to be built near my home, I’d want it zoned agricultural for this reason,” John Rivers stated.

3 | 3 Rivers plans to help train local first responders in best practices. During the meeting, an audience member asked if the company planned to help train local first responders to deal with both a stillage spill or a fertilizer spill. “Yes, absolutely,” Rivers responded. Both 3 River Energy and ATMOS Gas stated they planned to partner with local emergency management officials to make sure that all local responders are well versed in best practices. “We maintain a culture of contributing to the communities we operate in,” stated John Rivers. “I volunteer as a reserve deputy in my small town. I know the importance of training.”

4 | “The more nutrients that go out of Lynchburg, the more slop can stay.” Farm land can only take so much fertilizer and local streams can only take so much run off from local cattle feedlots. The 3 River pipeline will help area farmers by rebalancing that equation. Both 3 Rivers Energy Partners and Jack Daniel’s officials both expressed that this project will happen under the watchful eye of both the Tennessee Department of Agriculture and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. In addition to local approvals and compliance, 3 Rivers Energy will also need to pass multiple environmental studies to green light the project.

5| Whether it’s a pipeline or trucking, 3 Rivers Energy will distribute fertilizer according to what local citizens want. John Rivers says it will cost an estimated $4.8 million to truck out fertilizer to interested farmers as opposed to building a pipeline, but that’s what his company will do if that’s the will of Moore County citizens. “There no solution without community involvement,” Rivers stated. “We’ll also need to negotiate individual right-of-way agreements with any affected landowner. They have a lot of power here.”

The Metro Council will hear the third and final reading of the of a land use exception to the Metro Zoning Ordinances to allow “distillery by-products processing facility” on land zoned A1 (agricultural) on Monday, August 15 at 6:30 p.m. at the Lynchburg Legion Building located just off Highway 129. •

{The Lynchburg Times is the only locally-owned newspaper in Lynchburg and also the only woman-owned newspaper in Tennessee. We cover Metro Moore County government, Jack Daniel’s Distillery, Nearest Green Distillery, Tims Ford State Park, Motlow State Community College, Moore County High School, Moore County Middle School, Lynchburg Elementary, Raider Sports, plus regional and state news.}