News from the Road: Chase County, Kansas


On the recent Chicago-Berkeley peregrination, we stopped in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. One draw is the nearby Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, in the Kansas Flint Hills. It’s beautiful country. The town itself has a reputation as a well-preserved prairie village. It’s the county seat, and the courthouse is said to be the oldest still in use in Kansas (or west of the Mississippi, depending on who you believe). Broadway, the main street stretching north from the courthouse, is brick-paved. It is bordered by some handsome old buildings, including a hotel said to have a decent restaurant. We stopped for lunch at the Emma Chase Cafe and had burgers and fries; sweet-potato fries, in my case; never had them before.  

We picked up the local paper, the Chase County Leader-News, which ran the following story at the bottom of the front page on April 9. The story never says so–the locals must just know it–but the R3 Energy plant at the center of this incident is using chicken fat (among other things) as a raw material for biodiesel fuel. I had never thought of chicken fat that way before (a story earlier this week in the Arkansas Daily Gazette mentions that Tyson Foods, a big chicken processor, has a renewable energy group and is building a plant in Louisiana “to make high-grade biodiesel and jet fuels from Tyson-produced nonfoodgrade animal fats such as beef tallow, pork lard, chicken fat and greases.” I am way behind on my alternative energy news).

Six months before the incident, the Emporia Gazette ran a rather long article on the new biofuels plant in Cottonwood Falls. It was put up by a local family looking to get into a new business. It was a win for everyone–until the chicken fat spill.

R3 cleaning up spill

City Utility Supervisor
informs council of
chicken fat spill at R3

Jerry Schwilling
Chase County Leader-News

City Utility Supervisor Ron Lake informed the Cottonwood Falls City Council at its Monday, April 6, meeting that he had discovered a large amount of chicken fat at the city’s sewer lagoons Friday, April 3.

The chicken fat had run through the sewer line from R3 Energy to a lift station and from there onto the ground around the lift station.

Lake said when he discovered the chicken fat he asked R3’s Mike Swartz about it and Swartz said it was chicken fat that had been spilled at R3.

Swartz said Tuesday, April 7, that the spill had occurred when a truck was off-loading at the plant. The truck’s equipment, Swartz said, had malfunctioned spilling the chicken fat on the ground in the plans off-loading catchment area.

That area is designed to catch any spill and divert it either to the plant’s lagoon or the city’s lagoon. The decision was made to divert the spill to the city’s lagoon, Swartz said.

However, the lift station on the sewer line malfunctioned and the chicken fat spread on the ground around the lift station instead of going into the lagoon.

Swartz said the chicken fat was biodegradable and posed no ecological threat.

Lake told the council that he was required by the state to report the spill and to have it cleaned up.

Lake said that Swartz told him the spill had occurred on March 26. R3 did not report the spill to the city, Lake said.

Swartz said he reported the spill to two city employees the day it occurred and was told that Lake was not available.

R3, Swartz said, was having the lift station steam cleaned Tuesday, April 7, and had contracted a skid loader to pick up and dispose of the chicken fat on the ground at the city’s lagoons. He said he expected the clean up to be completed by the end of the day, Tuesday, April 7.

The council directed [city attorney?] North to send R3 a letter asking R3 to clean up the spill in the next seven days or the city would contract to have it cleaned up and bill R3.

The council also asked North to look into the creation of an ordinance to deal with any future spill.

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