Scott Sechler Sr. wants hexane kept far away from food, whether for animals or people.
Using the toxic solvent to produce soybean meal "is dangerous technology," he wrote in a full-page open letter printed in the Feb. 17 (Harrisburg) Patriot-News.
Sechler is chairman and president of Lebanon County-based antibiotic-free chicken producer Farmers Pride Inc., which does business as Bell & Evans.
"Let's rethink this deal," he wrote.
The deal in question is Salisbury, Md.-based Perdue AgriBusiness' plan to build a $59 million soybean plant next to the Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority's waste-to-energy plant in Conoy Township near Bainbridge.
The plant would separate soybeans into meal, hulls and oil, said Perdue spokesman Peter Heller. Meal and hulls become animal feed; oil can become biodiesel fuel or be refined to food grade and used in the snack industry.
The state has approved an $8.75 million grant underwriting the project. Perdue planned to break ground last fall and start production this coming December.
However, the state Department of Environmental Protection is still reviewing Perdue's permit applications, said the agency's South Central community relations coordinator, Lisa Kasianowitz. There is no specific timetable for decisions, she said.
Among the issues DEP must study: the plant's emission of airborne hexane. Operations would generate up to 245 tons a year of the volatile organic compound, according to Perdue's permit application for the processing facility.
Used to separate the oil from the meal, hexane is "a neurotoxin, a narcotic, and an irritant of the eyes, skin, and mucous membranes," according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a hazardous substance.
To offset its hexane output, Perdue will have to buy emission reduction credits, Kasianowitz said — essentially, acquiring other companies' unused pollution allotments.
Multiple witnesses raised concerns over the plant's environmental impact at a public hearing DEP hosted in December.
Southcentral Pennsylvania already has air quality issues, testified Mike Martin, chairman of the board of supervisors in Hellam Township, York County.
The area is prone to temperature inversions that could keep noxious emissions trapped locally for days, he told DEP representatives.
"It is clear that the facility as proposed does, indeed, pose significant and possibly insurmountable health risks to our community as very significant risks to the environment," he said.
In comments to the Business Journal, Sechler referred to hexane as "junk" and blasted the state's handling of Perdue.
"Nobody really did their homework on this," he said.
The project's detractors ignore Perdue's long history of operating hexane-extraction facilities safely in other states, Heller said. The company's headquarters are within a few hundred feet of such a plant and have been for more than 25 years, he said — evidence of the company's confidence that emissions pose no danger.
Critics at the hearing said Perdue's other plants are in flat areas with cleaner air and are not directly comparable to the Conoy Township site.
Perdue's emissions modeling for the site took temperature inversions and other local factors into account, Wayne Black, the company's environmental director, said at the hearing.
The plant's hexane emissions will be well below EPA thresholds, Black said.
Heller said Perdue picked the Conoy Township site in part to achieve environmental goals — specifically, to economize on energy use. The company plans to use steam from the
LCWMA waste-to-energy plant to power a portion of its operations,
authority CEO James Warner said.
"Perdue is a very environmentally conscious company," he said.
Putting the plant near soybean farmers and users cuts down on transportation, Heller said. That reduces pollution from fuel use as well as cost.
Pennsylvania exports millions of bushels of soybeans for processing and imports thousands of tons of soybean meal for animal feed, he said. As a result, the state loses out. An in-state plant will allow growers to get better prices for their crops as livestock farmers get cheaper soybean meal.
The alternative to hexane is using mechanical extruders and presses. Those are driven by motors running on fossil fuel, Heller said.
"Hexane extraction has a smaller footprint," he said.
The plant would process about 525,000 tons of soybeans a year, Heller said. Other news sources have erroneously reported 340,000 tons, Heller said.
The tonnage works out to 17.5 million bushels, which is more than two-thirds of Pennsylvania's current production. The state's farmers harvested an estimated 24.96 million bushels of soybeans in 2012, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Perdue would seek to buy as many soybeans as possible from growers within 50 miles or so of the plant, Heller said. The company could supplement those purchases with supplies from its network of feed mills.
Bell & Evans uses about 15 percent of the soybeans grown in Pennsylvania, Sechler said. On its website, the company proudly touts its avoidance of hexane-processed chicken feed.
The sheer scale of Perdue's plans will impair Bell & Evans' ability to buy hexane-free feed, Sechler said.
He would not object to Perdue building a plant that used extruder and press technology, he said.
"At least I could buy that product," he said.
Sechler said he received well over 100 responses to his open letter, only one of which was negative.
His letter urges readers to contact their elected representatives, DEP and the EPA "and let them know that you do not support this dangerous project."
More than 90 percent of soybean processing uses hexane, Heller said. The EPA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are the regulatory authorities and "they have long recognized the use of hexane for this purpose," he said.
"It's a regulated, permitted product," Heller said.
Estimated output (bushels)
Cumberland County: 846,000
Dauphin County: 613,000
Lancaster County: 1.54 million
Lebanon County: 754,000
York County: 2.23 million
Midstate total: 5.98 million
Pennsylvania: 24.96 million