Metro Council approves second but not third reading of anaerobic digester land use exception

LYNCHBURG, Tenn. — It took a public hearing prior to the regular meeting, a presentation by the company proposing the project, comments by Jack Daniel’s officials, and five rounds of roll call voting but on Monday night the Metro Council approved the second (but not the third) reading of a land use exception to the Metro Zoning Ordinances to allow “distillery by-products processing facility” on land zoned A1 (agricultural). It’s a move requested by 3 Rivers Energy Partners, the company slated to build an anaerobic digester on land adjacent to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery.

3 Rivers Energy provided this photo of anaerobic digester tanks similar to those proposed in Lynchburg. (Photo Provided)

On May 26, Jack Daniel’s management hosted a public forum to address the continuation of the distillery’s “slop” program and how the anaerobic digester played a part. {To read our full coverage of that meeting, click here.} At that meeting, Jack Daniel’s General Manager Larry Combs explained that the distillery will continue to offer slop to existing customers at the current capacity until the proposed anaerobic digester plant comes online in around 18 months. Then capacity will be at about half that amount until JD II comes online in 2024.

The Metro Planning Commission recommended the special exception to the Council. It’s based on a similar exception recently granted to Silicon Ranch for a solar farm project in Moore County. During the meeting, Mayor Lewis explained that the Metro Planning Commission chose the agricultural exception as opposed to an industrial rezoning to insure that if the AD Plant were to ever be decommissioned, a industrial project could not take its place.

During 3 Rivers Energy’s presentation, COO David Johnson stated the entire operation would be fully enclosed, which removes the possibility of odor escaping into the atmosphere. He also stated that single-source fed anaerobic digesters such as the one proposed in Lynchburg do not tend to produce offensive smells.

“If the digester gets opened for maintenance, it would likely have an earthy smell similar to a farm smell,” Johnson said. “If you can smell it, it means we’re losing natural gas and therefore, losing money so we’re highly incentivized against that.”

Johnson also stated that all lighting at the facility would point downward to guard against excessive brightness and that the noise level would be similar to that of a household blender. He also stated that the company planned to keep the existing tree line buffer in place to keep the plant from being visible from the road.

Other anaerobic digester in southern, middle Tennessee

According to the folks at 3 Rivers Energy, anaerobic digesters are not new to southern, middle Tennessee or the U.S. In fact, General Mills operates an onsite anaerobic digester at their plant in Murfreesboro. That digester is fed mainly from whey food products created during the production process of the brand’s popular Yoplait Yogurt. The yogurt production process creates a byproduct of two gallons of acid whey for every one gallon of Greek yogurt produced. General Mills began construction on the AD in 2013 and added a second phase in 2014 that allowed the plant to utilize the biogas onsite.

The excess of whey that General Mills produces during the yogurt production process is similar to the excess in spent distiller grains that Jack Daniel’s Distillery produces in the whiskey making process. Everyday that Jack Daniel’s makes whiskey, they also produce around 500,000 gallons of spent distiller grains or slop.

During the Metro Council meeting Jack Daniel’s Vice President of Operation Melvin Keebler stated that the distillery is poised to invest another $70 million at the distillery in an expansion set to nearly double production. More whiskey making means more slop, making the proposed anaerobic digester a key piece of the puzzle.

“We have to have a way to handle the slop and this project allows us to continue to grow, while also providing both Jack Daniel’s and the town of Lynchburg with a reliable source of natural gas,” Keebler stated.

Keebler pushed back against the idea of tabling the agenda item until the August meeting due to the close timetables of both the distillery expansion and the anaerobic digester project.

“There is a timing issue here with the proposed expansion and 3 Rivers Energy getting shovels in the ground on this project,” Keebler stated. “Pushing them back will also push back Jack Daniel’s growth.”

The $70 million dollar Lynchburg expansion will not only see an addition of local jobs but also increase the assessed value of the property, leading to an increase in local tax revenues, according to local Metro officials.

Potential fertilizer pipeline a point of contention

Part of the 3 Rivers Energy plan is to produce digestate as fertilizer that will be sold to area farmers at a discount. According to 3 Rivers officials, the project attempts to give back to nature a large percentage of corn growing takes.

“When corn is raised and harvested, it depletes the soil of some of its nutrients, primarily nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The project will digest Jack Daniel’s whole stillage from their whiskey production to create RNG. The digestate left over from the digestion process is rich in nutrients and an excellent fertilizer for the replenishment of the nutrients taken from the soil. The nutrients provide a well-balanced ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and micronutrients for growing corn and other crops,” their presentation materials stated.

3 Rivers says that digestate as fertilizer acts similar to liquid dairy manure and it holds a high value because in holds a higher pH and more organic matter.

One of the main points of contention on Monday night were the potential pipeline routes that might be used to pump and distribute the up to 200 millions gallons of fertilizer annually to area farmers including those in Moore, Coffee, Franklin, and Lincoln counties as well as North Alabama. During his presentation to the Council, 3 Rivers David Johnson stated that the company planned to use temporary, above-the-ground pipes until farming partners and areas of interest could be identified and then eventually install a more permanent pipeline, using an eight to twelve inch line buried several feet underground.

Following the meeting, Johnson told The Times that any potential pipeline path would require one-on-one conversations with area landowners and require easements with private property owners.

“We’re not not a public utility and we don’t have the right to use eminent domain. We’ll need to work one-on-one with local land owners,” Johnson says.

He also stated that if no approved path could be agreed upon that the company would consider trucking the fertilizer but resisted doing so due to the potential increased wear-and-tear on local roads and the increased risk of a spill.

Metro Council member Shane Taylor wanted to know if the proposed pipelines would go across the Mulberry Creek and what might happen in the event of a spill.

3 Rivers Energy’s David Johnson stated that the project would be happening under the watchful eye of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation and would utilize extensive meters and monitoring systems at both ends.

“If it falls in creek, it’s not much different than what’s currently happening,” Johnson responded referring to the Mulberry Creek’s near constant appearance on the state’s 303(d) list of contaminated waterways due to a high concentration of E. coli due to run off from local cattle feedlots. The most recent list names both the West Fork and the East Fork of the Mulberry Creek as containing excessive amounts of E. coli caused by pasture grazing and animal feeding operations. To view the most recent report, click here.

Council member Peggy Sue Blackburn added that a spill wouldn’t be hazardous from either the spent distiller grain side or the fertilizer side because both those substances are organic and not a biohazard.

“Correct,” Johnson added. “But the high concentration of fertilizer might result in a temporary fish kill.”

Johnson also added that a pipeline from the distillery to feed the anaerobic digester would reduce the potential for any smells and reduce the need to truck the spent distiller’s grain.

Moorehead recommends tabling issue until August

After a motion to table the motion until August from Council member Sunny Rae Moorehead failed twice, the Council took a roll call vote on the second reading of the special exception, which passed by a 7-5 margin. The seven yes votes included Gordon Millsaps, Gerald Burnett, Amy Cashion, Arvis Bobo, Peggy Sue Blackburn, Meaghan Bailey, and Wayne Hawkins and with five no votes coming from Sunny Rae Moorehead, Shane Taylor, Denning Harder, Jimmy Hammond, and Bradley Dye.

The proposed third reading failed by a 8-4 margin with Blackburn, Bobo, Millsaps, and Hawkins voting in favor of having the third reading and Shane Taylor, Harder, Burnett, Hammond, Cashion, Moorehead, Bailey, and Dye voting against having a third reading.

Mayoral candidate and metro council member Keith Moses, John Taylor, and Lindsey Houston were all absent from the meeting.

The Metro Council will revisit the third reading at the regular session August meeting, which takes place on Monday, August 15 at 6:30 p.m. If you have questions about the issue, feel free to email them to us at [email protected] and we’ll try and get you answers before the next meeting. •

{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.}