Construction at Stanislaus County's first ethanol manufacturing plant is well under way, with production slated to begin between March and June.
Legal entanglements, however, could delay that timetable.
Attorney Richard Harriman, representing a group called Valley Advocates, is challenging the county's decision not to require a formal environmental review of the facility in Keyes at Jessup Road and Highway 99.
Harriman said Friday he's expecting an early December hearing to consider pretrial motions before a Stanislaus County Superior Court judge. A trial date has not been set.
Cilion Inc., a partnership including Western Milling, a California grain milling company, and Khosla Ventures, a venture capital firm, will operate the facility.
Spokeswoman Karri Hammerstrom said Friday that Cilion officials wouldn't comment on the pending lawsuit.
Hammerstrom, the Goshen-based company's manager of environmental permitting and legislative development, said construction work on the plant is 50 percent complete.
Members of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors signed off on the ethanol plant in June, denying an appeal by Harriman seeking an environmental review.
Assistant County Counsel Jack Doering said in August that the environmental report was not needed because the land is zoned for industrial uses, which includes ethanol plants.
But Harriman believes the county still must do a full environmental review for the plant.
Once operational, the Keyes plant is expected to produce 55 million gallons of ethanol a year, extracting the fuel additive from 571,000 tons of corn.
Concern about pollution grows
The facility, which is next to A.L. Gilbert grain mill, also will produce more than 300,000 tons of wet distiller's grain.
The wet distiller's grain will be sold as a livestock feed supplement.
Nationally, there is growing concern about potential air pollution resulting from ethanol manufacturing. The effectiveness of ethanol as a fuel additive also has been criticized.
On the manufacturing side, however, the primary concern associated with ethanol are volatile organic compounds.
Among the VOCs released into the atmosphere during the manufacturing process are carbon monoxide and cancer-causing substances such as formaldehyde and acetic acid.
Methanol, another ethanol manufacturing byproduct, is considered a hazardous but noncarcinogenic pollutant.
Recent tests, according to experts, found VOC emissions ranging from 120 tons a year for some of the smallest ethanol plants to as many as 1,000 tons annually for larger facilities.
Cilion's Hammerstrom couldn't say Friday how much pollution the Keyes plant would add to the Northern San Joaquin Valley's air but insisted the fa-cility wouldn't worsen the area's chronic air woes.
"We're not going to make the air dirtier," she said.
Hammerstrom said the Keyes plant was planned as a state-of-the-art facility, designed to keep pollutants below the levels set by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
Air district isn't worried
Hammerstrom added that Cilion recently received an award for its commitment to green or environmentally friendly technologies.
"Yes, California's rules and regulations make it more expensive," Hammerstrom said, "but we want to do business here. We want to do our part (and) be the best at what we do."
Jim Swaney, the air district's permit services manager, said his agency is satisfied the ethanol manufacturing plant won't cause problems.
Swaney said Cilion had purchased a number of air pollution "credits" and agreed to use the most advanced pollution-controlling technologies available. He said the plant would be inspected and carefully monitored.
Hammerstrom said Cilion was working to mitigate any traffic problems from as many as 13 tanker trucks a day that will leave the facility loaded with ethanol.
Hammerstrom said the plant will be equipped with cutting edge fire-suppression equipment that's designed to snuff out flames.
But Cilion also is working with several fire departments, Hammerstrom said, so, that in the event they are needed, firefighters will be able to respond quickly, efficiently and with the appropriate equipment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Michael G. Mooney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2384.