Marion's waste-to-fuel quest undergoes another twist

With ethanol prices dropping, city shifts to produce other biofuels, too

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MARION — One of the biggest components in Marion’s vision of turning garbage into fuel is undergoing another change.

The long-awaited Fiberight plant that was to be built with city help at the Marion Industrial Center at 4390 Third Ave. now will change locations and focus.

The shift will keep the project from relying too much on any one fuel — a concern after ethanol prices saw a steep decline.

“Ethanol prices are really, really low,” City Manager Lon Pluckhahn said. “We just kind of took a step back and said, ‘What is it that Marion is trying to achieve with our project?’ ... It’s a less expensive overall project.”

City officials hope to construct the new plant within a yet-to-be-built, self-sustainable eco industrial park headed by the Marion Public Services Department. That complex would be on 47 acres east of its current location at 195 35th St.

Pluckhahn said Marion could end up with a facility that would not only separate organics from garbage, but transform it into various types of renewable fuels, like pelletized fuel, often used to run power plants to cut costs and emissions.

Initially, plans called for Fiberight LLC, a Maryland-based company that says it has developed technology to convert municipal waste into alterative fuels, to build a $15 million facility that would grab organic material in garbage to be sent to an ethanol plan in Blairstown.

The city in 2014 approved an incentive package with Fiberight that allowed the company to obtain nearly 9 acres of land in exchange for owning, operating and building the entire project.

The agreement said that revenue from future property taxes of up to $850,000 overall at the site would be used to pay for the property.

That incentive is now void as a new plan emerges.

Moving the re-thought facility was necessary due to zoning requirements, said Public Services Department Director Ryan Miller. While the city’s zoning ordinances would have allowed for a resource recovery plant at that location, it won’t allow for a plant that makes renewable natural gas or renewable natural fuels because it’s too close to a residential area.

But, he said, these changes will be beneficial to the city in the long haul.

“We’re diversifying the end product,” Miller said. “We don’t want to put our eggs in one basket. At some point, (one source of fuel) may go under. You have to make it where the project is protected.”

With these changes, Fiberight may have a smaller hand in the project, though the city will still license technology and engineering from the company, Miller said.

Fiberight may operate the facility as a private venture or manage its operations while the city owns the facility. Miller said those details are still being worked out.

Marion’s relationship with Fiberight has been an ever-changing one, experiencing multiple plan changes over the years, leaving some wondering if the project would ever get built.

But Fiberight chief executive officer Craig Stuart Paul said the company is as dedicated to the project as ever.

“We think this is a good way forward to get this project built,” he said. “We’re very committed to the Marion project. We have a lot of money, time and effort tied up into it.”

He said Fiberight hasn’t yet seen a revised proposal from the city. Miller said that’s coming in a few months.

“We will have a role, and it will be a significant role,” Stuart Paul said. “We want to see the darn thing built.”

Marion set out about 10 years ago to find ways of becoming a “zero waste” community, which means finding a way to recycle about 90 percent of its garbage, Pluckhahn said. Currently, he estimated, Marion recycles about 35 percent of its solid waste.

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