Whiskey distillery proposal ready for Act 250 scrutiny
SHOREHAM — The District 9 Environmental Commission will likely not request a second hearing to receive more testimony in WhistlePig’s quest for an Act 250 permit to build a whiskey distillery, its leader says. So the panel will now revisit the mountain of evidence that has been submitted by the applicant and opponents of the high-profile project in anticipation of issuing a decision later this spring.
That was the word this week from Geoff Green, coordinator of the commission, which on Friday, March 22, convened a day-long public hearing to take testimony in WhistlePig’s quest to set up a distillery, whiskey storage warehouse and related administrative offices at a former dairy farm off Shoreham’s Quiet Valley Road.
WhistlePig founder Raj Bhakta had anticipated that the bulk of his proposed whiskey-making operation would receive an agricultural exemption from Act 250 permitting requirements. He plans to use rye grown on the farm as the main ingredient (with water) for the whiskey. But state officials have determined that the proposed distillery will not qualify for a farm-related exemption, thereby triggering an Act 250 review that last Friday saw the varied aspects of the WhistlePig application come up for debate. Topics considered at the hearing included the volume of whiskey that would be produced, traffic the operation might generate and potential environmental byproducts of the whiskey-making process, such as a black mold fungus some neighbors fear might emanate from the planned whiskey storage facility.
WhistlePig officials have submitted testimony indicating the distillery would annually produce “no more than 6,000 barrels of whiskey,” a threshold intentionally set so as to not trigger more stringent air quality permitting requirements established by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.
At the same time, representatives of the company — which is now importing and bottling product from Canada — have suggested the potential for aging “no more than about 30,000 barrels of whiskey at our site before 2023.” They pointed to an ever-changing whiskey market that would require the company to react with a flexible business plan.
“Vermont has various permit requirements at successively higher emissions thresholds,” WhistlePig’s Statement of Intention to the commission reads. “As we approach any individual threshold, we will review our warehousing practices and apply for necessary permits.”
The need for the WhistlePig business plan to be fluid has raised some concerns among neighbors, who are particularly wary of the process by which ethanol created through the whiskey aging process could possibly spawn the growth and spread of Baudoinia compniacensis, sometimes referred to as “whiskey mold.”
The most vocal of the WhistlePig neighbors have been George Gross and Barbara Wilson, who own and operate the nearby Haven Solar Farm LLC, a small organic berry and fruit farm. They are concerned the black mold would affix itself to their property and crops.
Gross, a retired computer scientist, and two expert witnesses devised air dispersion models to predict “ethanol pollution levels originating from the proposed WhistlePig aging warehouse(s).” They said they applied their model to whiskey storage warehouse scenarios including 20,000 barrels, 30,000 barrels, 100,000 barrels and 200,000 barrels.
Their conclusion: “We determined that the ethanol air pollution trespass will occur for all credible forecasts of the number of whiskey barrels in storage by WhistlePig by the year 2023. In the larger scale warehouse deployment scenarios, the model indicates the ethanol pollution will extend to some neighbors beyond those directly adjacent to the WhistlePig LLC property.”
Gross and Wilson, in their testimony, have also voiced concerns about a “column still” that WhistlePig proposes to use in its operation, theorizing that such a tool would allow them to easily increase production. They also believe the company should be compelled to disclose its long-range growth plans at this stage, and noted Bhakta’s stated plans to purchase another farm in the area.
“As WhistlePig expands the number of barrels in storage over the next decade, they will eventually move beyond the (state’s) 20.37-ton annual ethanol emissions threshold limit,” Gross and Wilson wrote in a joint statement to the Addison Independent. “At that point, their air pollution permit may in fact require the ethanol emission control devices. At this time, Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources is awaiting WhistlePig’s air pollution permit application. Implicit in WhistlePig’s approach is the assumption that multiple warehouse locations, each containing up to 5,900 whiskey barrels in storage and sufficiently set back from the property line, will not cause Baudoinia fungi on adjacent properties. This is only true if the ethanol pollution plumes from these warehouse locations do not overlap.”
Meanwhile, Bhakta and his team — including expert witnesses of their own — are disputing the project opponents’ findings and assertions related to the project. They said there are no plans to erect multiple additional warehouses to allow for more whiskey aging on-site and stressed whiskey mold will not be an issue for neighbors as a result of the amount of product that would be manufactured on site.
“If WhistlePig ages as much as 25,000 barrels of whiskey at this site, it is projected that the black fungal growth will disperse no more than about 520 feet in the summertime predominant downwind direction and less than about 160 feet in all other directions,” the company stated in its pre-filed testimony. “Even if WhistlePig stores as much as 200,000 barrels of whiskey — 500 times what it is storing now — it is projected that black fungal growth will disperse no more than about a quarter of a mile in the prevailing wind direction and less than a tenth of a mile in all other directions. In other words, there will be no impact on any surrounding private properties.”
Jon Anderson, attorney for WhistlePig, said that 25,000 barrels of whiskey stored on-site at the Shoreham site is “an aggressive goal for the next five to 10 years” and that a 200,000-barrel limit was factored into the study to “address once and for all the concerns raised by neighbors.”
Bhakta was candid in his frustration with the permitting hurdles his project has encountered.
“It’s a shame that both a small but growing business and a cash-strapped state are diverting resources to hear out the unfounded complaints of my neighbor,” Bhakta wrote in a statement for the Addison Independent. “Even his experts agreed that there are no risks associated with my project, but he has succeeded in preventing us from hiring new employees and stopping our growth. Despite claiming that he just wants WhistlePig to follow the rules, which we are doing, he’s asking the state to shut us down, and making fantastical claims like saying we’ll build 63 barns. In regards to what I have done, I’ve always thought the renovations to my barns were not construction, and the moment I wanted to do any construction, I applied for a permit. If repairing and re-tasking crumbling barns is illegal, maybe we need to re-examine the laws. And if using one’s own grain to make another product, be it bread or whiskey, is not agriculture, maybe we need to revise our notions of agriculture as well.”
Gross and Wilson are hopeful the commission will rule in their favor.
“We acknowledge that approving the WhistlePig distillery project will have an economic benefit for its investors and employees,” they wrote in their statement. “However, that goal by itself is not sufficient grounds for the project’s approval. To be approved as a project, WhistlePig’s goals must be reconciled with the wider economic and environmental interests of all members of the surrounding community. We hope the district commissioners, working in unison with Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources, can strike the right balance between these positions. In particular, we would hope that any Act 250 permit approval would contain the condition committing WhistlePig to a policy of installing and responsibly operating ethanol emission control devices on its future long-term whiskey aging warehouses.”
Green said WhistlePig officials will be expected to apply during the coming weeks for other permits — such as those dealing with wastewater and indirect discharge — that have to be obtained before an Act 250 permit can be issued. The commission, after reviewing evidence in the case, will ask the parties for any additional information it might need in order to render its decision.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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