Port of Whitman County moves forward with biodiesel plant plans

Nearly 200 acres of land plan to be bought, next step in the process is approval of rezoning



The plant will be built on Wawawai Road just west of the Pullman city limits.

JOSIAH PIKE, Evergreen news co-editor

The Port of Whitman County is moving forward on helping AgTech OS develop a biodiesel plant in Pullman.

Karl Webber, District 1 Commissioner for the Port of Whitman County, said the Port had a regularly scheduled meeting on Feb. 13 to review the preliminary site plan.

“The Port has signed the purchase sale agreement for 180 acres, but it has a contingency where if it doesn’t pass the rezoning, we don’t buy the property,” Webber said. “There [are] about 81 acres of that, that is in the city limits that needs to go through the rezoning process.”

Webber said not all of the land will be used for heavy industrial operations. The land planned to be purchased will also have space for local buildings and businesses.

“There could be anything from light retail to coffee shops, anything like that could sit in the commercial part,” Webber said.

Brian Kraft, chief technology officer for AgTech OS, said the Port made some of the plans for the plant public at the most recent regularly scheduled meeting.

“There has not been a lot made public for the plans or the intent of the plant,” Kraft said. “The goal was to provide the public with a bit more information of what the biodiesel plant will look like.”

Kraft said there has been no fundamental change of plans for the biodiesel plant in the past few weeks. Recently, he has noticed an increase in interest in the plant, especially from farmers.

“As we’ve gotten some more press I think we’ve gotten an increase in interest from farmers,” Kraft said. “The idea of having a local market to sell their canola seeds is a big deal.”

AgTech OS will be the acre tenant in this space, but other tenants will be allowed to move in as well, he said. Now that the property is planned to be bought by the Port, the next step in the process is to approve the rezoning of the property.

“The Port made the decision to move forward with the application to rezone that property. That will trigger a process where we do some environmental reviews and there will be some public hearings,” Kraft said. “The result of that will either trigger the completion of the purchase and start work on the site or it will result in looking for other properties that can be rezoned or have been rezoned.”

Webber said if the land is successfully purchased, the Port will complete the infrastructure around the area and lease the land to AgTech OS, operating as a private business.

The shortest completion time of the rezoning process is 90 days, Webber said. However, even if the rezoning was finished in 90 days, groundbreaking would begin at the earliest in the spring of 2024.

At this point, the Port’s main role is going to be to serve as a landlord tenant relationship with AgTech OS, Kraft said. While it is true that the biodiesel plant may be an industrial operation, Kraft said it will be an environmentally friendly industrial operation.

“There is a bit of a misconception around the danger of the operations that we would be doing there. Biodiesel, you look it up on the web and you see things about the smell or fires from a biodiesel plant, and that’s true, but there’s a lot of nuance to it,” he said. “When you make biodiesel from recycled greases or oils then there’s going to be a lot of smell. We’re crushing virgin canola, so we’re taking canola seed and crushing it into an oil.”

Kraft said the community will remain updated on the progress of the biodiesel plant. He is hoping the plant will end up working for the whole community.

However, support for the plans are not unanimous. A petition has been created on Change.org by those against the plans which currently has over 1,300 signatures. The petition lists the plant’s effect on the nearby air quality, water usage and noise, among other things, as their grievances with the plans.

Pullman resident Gwen Anderson created the petition earlier this month. She said one of the biggest concerns citizens have with the plant is that it’s being built right next to a densely populated residential neighborhood.

“Pullman already has a housing issue in terms of not having enough space,” Anderson said. “I just think it would not be in Pullman’s best interest to take what little bit of residential property we have left to build nice homes on to zone it as heavy industrial.”

In addition, Anderson said another concern related to the plant is that the plant will still have a smoke stack and will have exhaust coming from it, which may affect Pullman residents.

“The prevailing winds in Pullman will push whatever is exhausted out of that plant over the residential area and down into downtown,” she said. “It’s not the plant so much itself or the idea of making renewable fuel, it’s the location of the biodiesel plant.”

Anderson said it would probably be better to build the plant on the northside of town, near where Schweitzer Engineering Laboratory is, since there are already heavy industrial operations there. However, she said in the space available in that area, there may not be enough room for the plant with how they currently plan to build it.

“I am not one to give suggestions as far as to where, but I think they should really look at more of the rural communities,” Anderson said.

Anderson said the concerned citizens are not against the potential economic growth and renewable fuels the plant may bring, but are instead against the possibility of the effect it may have on the residential areas, including a possible industrial accident in the area or decrease in property values as a result of the plan.

“The prevailing winds in the area where the proposed plant will be erected would blow any exhausted air, odors and pollutants over most of the City of Pullman,” the petition reads. “The processing of plant material to extract oil for biofuels/biodiesel involves the use of chemicals and there would be an exhaust system as part of the plant.”

Webber said there are some concerns within the neighborhood regarding the plant, but he believes that is due in part to a lack of public information regarding the plant. 

“We’re trying to get all the information out to the people as quickly as they can so they can make a decision based on that,” Webber said. “The Port encourages the public to get as much information as they can. Go to the events, look at the website and then make their decision on how they feel about this.”

The plant will be funded through both public and private money, although the exact breakdown of how much from both is not known yet, according to an article from the Daily Evergreen.

The Pullman Chamber of Commerce is planning on holding an informational meeting on the subject at noon on March 1 at the Schweitzer Engineering Laboratory Event Center. For more information, you can visit AgTech OS’s website or the Port of Whitman County’s Agricultural Advancement Campus.