MOUNT GILEAD — A two-day bench trial began Monday in Morrow County Common Pleas Court regarding the status of Renergy Inc.’s biodigester in Westfield Township.
County Prosecutor Charles Howland called several witnesses including Renergy’s Chief Operating Officer and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency representatives. At the center of the issue is zoning, whether Renergy is still an agricultural operation or should be considered industrial.
Township resident Jody Shaffer wrapped up testimony addressing the “putrid, foul” smell residents say is caused by the biodigester handling biosolids.
Shaffer has lived in the area since 1989 and said this smell is much worse than typical “farm smells.”
He spoke about runoff into his pond from the facility, which resulted in dead fish.
“It’s a sour, putrid smell; almost gives you a gag reflex,” Shaffer said.
The company has come under fire over the past two years from local residents who are concerned with the odor and increased traffic at the facility.
Renergy executive Cari Oberfield answered questions from Howland, saying Renergy Inc. owns the digester and leases land from the Ringler family.
She said no fines were levied against Renergy following a notice of violation from the Ohio EPA in 2018.
Howland took issue with the wording of permits granted to the company.
“If it’s a public utility fine, they agreed to burn hog manure; not to burn non-ag stuff,” he said.
In August, Renergy Inc. also known as Emerald Bioenergy, said it no longer will be accepting municipal solid waste at their Dovetail and Emerald facilities. Emerald is the one located in Morrow County that opened in September 2013.
A cease and desist order was issued by the county prosecutor’s office in September 2019. The prosecutor said at that time the bio-digester violates township zoning regulations.
The company filed an appeal and has continued to operate.
Renergy’s legal counsel Trevor Alexander asked Alex Ringler about the operation.
Ringler said his family has had hogs since 1994 and is “not involved in the day-to-day operations” of Renergy.
Ringler also said “there are many great assets to having a biodigester.”
Jessica Bendle, fiscal officer for Westfield Township, also gave testimony.
“The smell is very strong and there are a lot of trucks; the road is breaking down,” said Bendle, who lives on County Road 156 about two miles from the facility.
Bendle said the township has been zoned for agriculture use since 1989.
She said she’s lived there for 14 years and driving by previously “you could smell the hog farm more; but when you travel north it’s way worse. It’s a chemical smell that burns your nose.”
Three EPA employees took the stand, including Betsy Van Wormer, a biosolids co-ordinator.
She said she has visited the site 10 to 15 times and done inspections there, with this March being the last one.
When Howland asked her about the fire at Renergy this past June, she offered no additional information other than confirming “our emergency response team” was called in.
Judge Tom Elkin is presiding. The trial will resume at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 29.