By Adam Smith
Within 75 weeks’ time, Athens could be home to a proposed oil re-refinery that developers say could reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.
Members of the city’s planning commission heard a presentation at Tuesday’s meeting by John Redmond, CEO of Alabama Green Lubricants LLC. He told commissioners the operation would cost about $40 million and could hire up to 30 employees who would earn $18 to $22 per hour.
The group heard the pitch because it held a scheduled public hearing to hear comments on a request to annex 13 acres of land in unincorporated Limestone County into the city. The commission was also asked to recommend the City Council rezone that property, plus an additional 10 acres of land inside the city limits, as M-2, or a heavy industrial district. The property is currently in an M-1, or light industrial district.
The property located outside the city limits is between Alabama 127 North and Heron Drive. The property inside the city limits is located on Alabama 127 North at Airport Road. The owner of both parcels is listed as William Prince.
Following the presentation, the commission unanimously agreed to recommend that the Athens City Council annex and rezone the property accordingly. City Planner Mac Martin said the project would come before the planning commission again, however, because the operation would require a conditional-use designation.
“It’s an opportunity for us to move forward and I thank you for choosing Athens, Alabama,” said Mayor Ronnie Marks, who also serves on the Planning Commission. “We’ve only taken the first step, but we’re on the move.”
Redmond said the facility would give “environmental and green credentials” to the city. He said the closest comparable facilities are in Indianapolis and Wichita, Kan.
“Our plan is to construct a used oil recycling facility in Athens and provide a reliable high-market value for used oil collectors serving the Alabama and southern Tennessee market,” he said, adding the operation would cover about 24 acres. “Alabama is a business friendly state and has a history of being a leader in used oil recycling.”
Redmond said he hopes those employed by the facility would be local workers, though he added each employee would be trained. Most of the jobs would require workers to operate control systems that monitor the refining process, including opening and closing valves. The facility will also hire maintenance workers, a full-time lab scientist and lab technicians.
What the plant will do, in essence, is refine used motor oil to recover lubricating oil-base stock through a purification process. One barrel of oil is 42 gallons, and Redmond said it takes two barrels to produce one gallon of virgin oil base. Oil companies like Valvoline, Quaker State and other industries that have a need for the material will use the refined product.
Redmond pointed out most motor oils use a small portion of re-refined oil in their product, but Valvoline now makes a NextGen product that uses up to 53 percent lubricating oil-base stock. In Germany, he said, every Mercedes that leaves the assembly line has refined motor oil in its engine.
The re-refining process will also yield a sludge product the company will sell as asphalt. And though he said it’s not in the immediate plans, Redmond said one goal is to eventually package and sell the finished product at the Athens plant.
Tom Hill, president of the Limestone County Economic Development Association, said oil re-refining “appears to be an up-and-coming industry” and added that European nations recycle 80 percent of automobile oil, whereas the U.S. only refines about 20 percent.
“The U.S. is wasting a lot of oil in an unproductive venue. We’re always looking for the highest and best use, so why burn it when it can be recycled?” he said. “It will provide some high-paying jobs for the community and we’re excited about the investment.”
Most of the used motor oil will arrive at the facility by tractor-trailer, though the facility would also be located adjacent to a main rail line. The trucks will bring in used motor oil discarded by consumers at collection locations.
Oil will be taken out of the trucks and deposited in a series of large tanks that are 40 feet in height or less. The quality of the oil will be tested as it is brought in for contaminants and flashpoints.
The facility will be able to refine about 8,000 gallons of oil per hour and will run about 335 days of the year. Redmond estimated 20 to 25 trucks would come in each day between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., or as many as two per hour. He said about 28 million gallons of finished product would leave the plant each week.
As a means of researching the facility, City Planner Mac Martin visited a similar site in Chester County, S.C. He said there was some odor associated with the facility there that resembled a “slight burned oil smell.” He added, however, he did not find it to be “an overly noxious smell.”
In terms of safety, he said the flashpoint of the oil on site is lower than it would be at a normal refinery, but added there is “still some risk of fire or explosion.” He said Athens Water and Wastewater would be involved in each step of the process to ensure the plant had adequate fire protection standards.
Martin and Redmond told commissioners the facility would be monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency. Martin said officials in Chester reported no complaints from the facility that has been operational since October 2011.
The closest occupied home to the Chester facility, he said, is about 1,000 feet. In Athens, the closest home would be about 500 feet from the refinery on Heron Drive.
The City Council will hold a public hearing on the annexation and rezoning requests at its April 9 meeting.