PEMBROKE — A proposed biodiesel manufacturing plant that is opposed by some people because of plans to locate it near homes and Purnell Swett High School is being touted as potentially saving the Public Schools of Robeson County up to 75 cents a gallon for fuel.
“Yes, biodiesel is a green energy source, and that’s a positive thing,” said Raymond Cummings, a Robeson County commissioner and Transportation director for the public schools. “But in deciding if a conditional-use permit should be granted for the facility, we (commissioners) have to be sensitive to the feelings of the community. Community harmony is extremely important in the decision-making process.”
Eric T. Locklear has applied for a conditional-use permit to operate the business on about three acres of a 10-acre tract on Kessie Drive. The property, which is owned by Locklear’s family, is adjacent to Purnell Swett High School’s soccer field and about 500 feet from the school building. It also is located only about 100 feet from the back door of the home of Barbara Collins, one of several residents opposing the facility who contend it would be a health and safety hazard.
Biodiesel is produced when methanol and glycerin react with vegetable oil or animal fat. A perusal of websites containing information about biodiesel production provides numerous accounts of fires that have resulted when methanol is not handled properly.
On Thursday, about 30 people met at the West Robeson Methodist Church to develop a plan for convincing county commissioners not to allow the facility on Kessie Drive.
Locklear told The Robesonian that he attended the meeting, but was denied the opportunity to “explain his business.” He said that he did speak with some of those present individually, and that afterward some were more comfortable that the facility would not be as a threat.
“As a finished product, biodiesel is good for the environment,” Collins said last week. “It’s the manufacturing process that we are worried about.”
Collins’ husband Stanley Knick, director of the Native American Resource Center at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, agreed.
“In the abstract, bio-fuels are a good idea as a replacement for fossil fuels,” he said. “Entrepreneurial ideas for new business start-ups in Robeson County are also a good idea … . However this location … is just not the right place, not the safe place for biodiesel production.
“… Every single company that ever had a chemical fire, that ever had a chemical explosion, that ever had a toxic spill or a gaseous release of any harmful substance swore when they were applying for permits that there was absolutely no danger to human health or the environment, and that nothing bad could ever happen,” Knick said.
In December, the county commissioners denied the permit. Locklear won an appeal to the county’s Zoning Board after providing more information. Locklear is scheduled to go before the commissioners on Feb. 6 to request the conditional-use permit.
Locklear formed Indigenous Bio-Solutions LLC, which employs himself, his wife and his father. The proposal calls for the construction of a 25-foot-by-30-foot building. Traffic to the site would be limited, Locklear said, because the biodiesel would be delivered to customers.
Locklear said that the facility could produce up to 270 gallons of biodiesel a day, but at no time would more than 1,000 gallons be stored at the site. He said the facility would be regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources once the sale of fuel begins.
“There are citizens in Robeson County making biodiesel at home right now,” Locklear said. “They don’t sell it, so they don’t need a conditional-use permit.”
Locklear downplayed down the danger.
“Methanol does need to be handled with care, but with no more precautions than you should use when handling gasoline at home or at the gas pump,” he said.
According to the 28-year-old Locklear, he has experience in the fields of chemistry, biology, physics and lab design. He said he has five years of experience as a research and development chemical engineer, more than three years of experience as an environmental scientist, and training and certification in the area of handling hazardous chemicals. He is employed by Porter Scientific in Pembroke, but that company is not involved with Locklear’s biodiesel manufacturing company.
Locklear hopes to see his business grow so he can afford to relocate to an area in Robeson County that is zoned for industrial use. He said he hopes to enter into a contract with the Public Schools of Robeson County to provide biodiesel for the system’s buses, saying it could save the system 50 t0 75 cents a gallon.
Property owners near the proposed manufacturing plant have also raised concerns about what effect the facility could have on property values and a person’s ability to obtain and maintain homeowner’s insurance.
“I have spoken to numerous insurance agents and they all tell me the same thing,” Locklear said. “If equipment is not on a neighbor’s property, it will not affect their homeowner’s insurance.”
Reach staff writer Bob Shiles@910-272-6117 or email@example.com.