Murray River Council asked to explain ‘secret’ plans for ethanol plant in Moama

By Anna McGuinness

A MURRAY River councillor and a group of farmers are demanding the council publicly explain a secret multimillion dollar investment in a proposed ethanol plant near Moama to ratepayers.

In September 2018, MRC bought a 193ha block of land on Mathoura-Line Rd for $1,218,750 for Murray River Energy to build an ethanol plant and biodigester.

A subsequent five-year lease back to the previous landowner, with a five-year option, has been signed.

Cr Tom Weyrich claimed MRC paid more than double the current market value of the land after receiving a land valuation over the phone.

“A current valuation says $2500 to $2800 per hectare, and it would have been even less two years ago,” he said.

“The lease is for $15 an acre and the going rate is $45 an acre — we’re a laughing stock.”

During the Murray River Council meeting on July 28, the project was discussed in the closed session.

Cr Weyrich asked for a vote to have it debated publicly but was denied by Mayor Chris Bilkey.

“This is more than $2 million of ratepayer money, we should be having open and honest discussions over other people’s money,” Cr Weyrich said.

The block of land bought by Murray River Council in 2018.

The protestors, who farm surrounding land, said there had been no transparency or consultation with them.

“It’s an agricultural area and they’ve purchased a massive portion of land unbeknown to anyone; and won’t disclose how they went about it,” Danny Berryman said.

In a statement, MRC confirmed it bought the land in 2018, but declined to provide any financial details of purchase or lease.

“Council does purchase land from time to time for various community needs. In this case, the land was purchased to meet future industrial development as Moama continues to grow, and to disclose the purchase price would be reckless and not in the best interest of our ratepayers,” chief executive Des Bilske said.

The concerned landholders said they were only made aware of the purchase of neighbouring land in March this year, when they received a letter from infrastructure firm AECOM notifying them of the project.

According to the letter, the project will have the capacity to produce 115 million litres of ethanol a year by processing locally grown wheat.

However, the farmers said local growers would not be able to supply the 300,000 tonnes of grain required annually.

“You would never get that in this area,” Kylie Berryman said.

“They’re wanting to buy the lowest quality grain they can get, but any farmer in the area with a bumper year won’t be selling grain to them — we obviously go for the top market we can get,” she said.

“The shire says it’s going to be good for the local economy, but is it, really?”

In March last year, MRC also invested $900,000 in Murray River Energy in return for the first mortgage on a property in Geelong.

Cr Weyrich said a caveat had now been placed on that asset, so council would be unable to sell it to regain the funds, if needed.

“This was bought two years ago, there was no planning consent and council has purchased the land,” he said.

“We’re in real trouble here, we’ve squandered ratepayers’ money.”

Murray River Energy’s Greg Finn was also involved with the Deniliquin ethanol project, by proposed developer Dongmun Greentec, which has remained stagnant since it was approved by the NSW Government in 2016.

A scoping report prepared by AECOM for the Moama Ethanol Project said the company changed its name to Murray River Energy and “has over the last two years been investigating several other sites … considered more preferable locations for the plant”.

MRC said community members would have the opportunity to comment on the project once the development application had been submitted.

“Community members can ask questions at a public presentation of the project and make submissions on the Planning NSW website before any final decision — a process expected to take six months.”

The full scoping report is available on the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment website.

Murray River Energy declined to comment.

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