SUNNYSIDE, Wash. – The proposed biomethane plant in Sunnyside has permission to move forward.
After a community meeting and an influx of comments about the project, the city of Sunnyside allowed Pacific Ag, an agricultural waste management company, to move forward with its plans to build a facility that produces biomethane, or renewable natural gas, without an environmental impact statement.
The proposed site covers about 50 acres south of Interstate 82 on Port of Sunnyside property, directly off Sunnyside-Mabton Road.
Nearby residents and community groups oppose the project and called for more transparency about how the plant will be operated or for it to be moved to an new location. Many are concerned about air and water pollution, potential disasters and the effects on traffic and home values.
Christina Santana, a resident who lives less than a mile away, submitted comments to the city and felt like those comments were not properly addressed.
“In a perfect world, I do not want this near my home. I want it as far away as possible, but I feel like it’s too late, like they’ve already made up their minds,” Santana said. “I feel hopeless.”
Trevor Martin, Sunnyside’s community and economic development director, conducted the State Environmental Policy Act review and issued a mitigated determination of nonsignificance, also called an MDNS, that allows the project to move forward.
The city also declined to process an appeal of that decision from Friends of Toppenish Creek, a local nonprofit focused on rural communities and oversight of industrial agriculture.
Second time around, same result
This is the second time the project has received an MDNS. Martin issued one over the summer, but he reopened the SEPA review process after Pacific Ag, the Yakima Clean Air Agency and residents asked to submit more comments.
The city issued a second, revised MDNS on Jan. 25.
He said the MDNS simply means Pacific Ag is following state regulations for the biomethane plant and is seeking the right permits from various agencies, like the state Departments of Transportation and Ecology and the local clean air agency.
Those agencies will make sure the project complies with environmental and safety guidelines. For example, Pacific Ag submitted an application with information about air pollutants to the clean air agency.
“We didn’t receive anything from state agencies that was irregular,” Martin said. “The city is ensuring that the applicant goes and gets all the permits for this project.
“(Pacific Ag) has really given us no reason to go above and beyond at this time.”
How does the thing work?
Pacific Ag officials are excited about the MDNS and called it a significant milestone in their efforts to the build the facility, which they said will be one of the largest of its kind in the country.
It will use organic agricultural waste, primarily manure trucked in from local dairies, and anaerobically digest it in large tanks to turn it into methane. That methane will be used as natural gas fuel and transported via a nearby, existing pipeline.
The process will reduce methane emissions from manure at dairies. Manure left outside for processing releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The biomethane produced for fuel will still emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when burned.
The other byproduct, called digestate, can be used as fertilizer. Pacific Ag will pay for the manure it gets from local dairies.
“We’re so excited about this project being in Sunnyside,” said Harrison Pettit, Pacific Ag’s chief development officer. “It feels like it fits there pretty well. It meshes with other industries in Sunnyside.”
Residents’ concerns abound
Many neighbors disagree. Empowering Latina Leadership and Action, or ELLA, a Sunnyside-based nonprofit, has canvased community members, many of whom were unaware of the project until a community meeting organized by the group in December.
“The perfect thing would be that it wouldn’t be put there,” said Rachel Magaña, whose backyard would run right up against the proposed plant’s site.
Magaña and Santana added that there had been no information available in Spanish for people who live around the project’s site. That concerned was raised at ELLA’s meeting.
“I feel like they’re trying to take advantage of the fact that Sunnyside is low-income, high-Hispanic,” Magaña said.
Pettit said Pacific Ag is taking steps to reach out to the community by talking to local media and adding a Spanish-language option to its website.
Martin said the city of Sunnyside is not required to send out notices or information in Spanish, but city council members are working to change that.
Maria Fernandez, executive director of ELLA, canvassed residents in the area. She said efforts to communicate need to include more outreach.
“Good communication means having regular meetings with folks and being transparent and honest about the risks,” Fernandez said. “(Residents) are going to have those concerns and they’re not being addressed by the city, by the port, by Pacific Ag.”
Fernandez suggested using social media, local newspapers and radio stations that Latino community members also use. She added that regular community meetings and an advisory council made up of residents and other stakeholders in the area could improve communication, too.
“I think anything short of these practices is a deliberate attempt not to educate the community,” she said.
Residents have raised other concerns beyond communication. Santana is worried about the trucks that transport manure spilling it on roads or driving by as children are dropped off from school buses.
She and Magaña added that home prices in the area could suffer. Santana said her family doesn’t have the money to just up and move – she is recovering from chemotherapy. Her family has invested a lot in the home to build a future for her children.
She’s worried that a large, industrial facility down the road is part of a historical trend of decreasing wealth and equity for Latino homeowners.
“We historically have had trouble owning homes and now we’re going to lose equity in our homes,” she said. “I would want to know, if something does go bad, who would be responsible for that.”
Pettit said safety is a primary concern for Pacific Ag. He noted that one of the project’s requirements is to improve local sidewalks and walkways for the nearby road.
“We can’t deliver on the promise of environmental benefits without first focusing on safety. Those are healthy concerns,” he said.
Pettit added that Pacific Ag was working to answer questions submitted by residents and community organizations. Pettit has empathy for nearby residents, but ultimately, he said the site was zoned for heavy industrial use by local officials.
“This is where the port and the city have chosen to host heavy industry,” Pettit said. “If it’s not us, it will be another industrial partner.”
Appeal hangs in the balance
Friends of Toppenish Creek appealed the latest MDNS on Feb. 1. In its appeal, the group argued that the SEPA review should consider alternative sites, environmental impacts for local air and water, the risk of an explosion and the impact of traffic on Sunnyside and Yakima County roads.
On Tuesday, Sunnyside said the appeal could not be processed. In an earlier interview, Martin cited previous case law around the SEPA process and said MDNS on its own cannot be appealed.
Friends of Toppenish Creek appealed the MDNS twice. Jean Mendoza, a volunteer with Friends of Toppenish Creek, said an MDNS is appealable under state law.
“The whole purpose of SEPA is to make sure the community knows about the environmental effects,” Mendoza said. “That’s what we’re looking for, a balanced assessment of pros and cons.”
FOTC’s appeal letter pointed out that the city and Port of Sunnyside contributed funding to the project’s road, water and sewer infrastructure. In December 2022, Sunnyside City Council approved a combination of grants and loans for that infrastructure.
Friends of Toppenish Creek cited state law, saying that if an agency conducting a SEPA review funds a project, that decision can be appealed.
The city and port, which sold the project site to Pacific Ag, split the $12 million infrastructure cost. They received the funding through the state Commerce Department, which also gave the project half a million in grant funding in October 2023.
Pacific Ag said it will spend around $120 million in the plant’s construction and the facility will bring jobs to Sunnyside.
Jasper Kenzo Sundeen’s reporting for the Yakima Herald-Republic is possible with support from Report for America and community members through the Yakima Valley Community Fund. For information on republishing, email email@example.com.