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The empty KFC, the ethanol plants and the Riverina towns

Guy Anderson, who lives next door to the proposed development, said the $1.2 million paid by the council was an “exorbitant, ridiculous” price compared to local valuations seen by The Sydney Morning Herald, which estimate land in the area is at least $500,000 less.

“I said, can you give me the name of the valuer, because I’d like him to value my place,” Mr Anderson said.

Moama landowner Guy Anderson said he was shocked the council had bought the land for the little-known company.

Moama landowner Guy Anderson said he was shocked the council had bought the land for the little-known company.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Moama landowners said they had no idea about the ethanol plant proposed to be built next to their properties until receiving a letter from international engineering firm AECOM on behalf of Murray River Energy in March, seeking their feedback on plans to convert wheat into unleaded petrol.

Kylie Berryman, who lives nearby, said the group was astounded the council spent such a high amount of ratepayers’ money in that way, claiming there had been no broad community consultation.

“There has been a lack of transparency or any due process into the value of the land, the low lease agreement, the company involved or the risk to ratepayer funds,” she said.

In response to questions from the Herald, Murray River Shire said the council said in a statement it negotiated the sale of the land but the sale was subject to planning consent being obtained to construct an ethanol plant and biodigestor on the site.

“The plant uses new, environmentally friendly technology in a fully enclosed, continuous process that when completed will provide 50 permanent local jobs with an additional 250 jobs, in flow on effects to other sectors of the business community,” the council said.

“Unfortunately, unlike Sydney and other large regional centres, small rural communities like Moama have to work harder and in innovative ways to attract development and create important local jobs.”

The statement said the company presented to councillors forums on a number of occasions: “the only time that this matter has been discussed in closed council is when the matters being discussed were considered to be of a ‘commercial in confidence’ nature.”

During a council meeting on Tuesday, councillor Thomas Weyrich protested against the matter being handled confidentially.

“I believe there are some very serious issues with this whole saga of the purchase of the land and other associated matters with this block of land,” he said. “It’s my belief that we are standing on the edge of a cliff.”

Colonel Sanders' face still adorns the windows of the old Kentucky Fried Chicken building in Deniliquin.

Colonel Sanders’ face still adorns the windows of the old Kentucky Fried Chicken building in Deniliquin.Credit:Kate Geraghty

The council, overseeing border towns in the south-west, also approved a $900,000 investment to Murray River Energy, in return for the mortgage of a Victorian property, in March 2019.

It comes as locals are uncertain whether a long-awaited $90 million ethanol plant in Deniliquin – by a different company with the same directors – will proceed.

Murray River Energy director Gregory Finn, who has listed his shareholder address and previously his directorship address as the empty KFC with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, said they would be going ahead with the Deniliquin ethanol plant “but just not at the minute”, given broader economic crisis.

Mr Finn said the Moama site was better positioned to be able to deliver its product to the Port of Melbourne for export.

Anaerobic digester consumes green waste to turn into liquid fertiliser.

“We see it as a very positive business. It’s new technology, we see the value-adding side of it as having enormous potential for the community,” he said.

He said the KFC would be the office they used when the endeavour eventually went ahead.

Local real estate agent Jeff Shand, who owns the site, said the company leased part of the KFC building from him: “They’ve got people in there, they just come and go.”

Murray River Energy is the latest iteration of companies linked by a similar group of directors that have proposed setting up ethanol plants or anaerobic digesters in Junee, near Wagga Wagga; near Geelong, in Victoria; and Longford, in Tasmania.

Mr Finn said the reason the other projects hadn’t gone ahead were due to a range of factors: “We were dealing with different people, we had other partners. This has no relationship whatsoever to those other applications.”

Mr Anderson on his land, with the site of the proposed plant in the background.

Mr Anderson on his land, with the site of the proposed plant in the background.Credit:Kate Geraghty

The Deniliquin plant was approved by the state government in 2016, though Mr Finn acknowledged they were still locking down financial backing: “we have agreements on the table so we’re very confident.”

Locals have questioned the economic viability of having to cart vast amounts of water and natural gas into the Moama and Deniliquin sites. Mr Finn said he was researching ways of offsetting costs.

In correspondence seen by the Herald, Ms Berryman asked the council if it had verified the company had the capacity to undertake the Moama project.

Murray River Council general manager Des Bilske replied, “the company is a leader and patent holder in the design and manufacture of anaerobic biodigestion technology and council is satisfied that the company is qualified to complete the project.”

The council has said the community will be consulted once a development application is submitted.

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