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Sun, Mar 05, 2006 - Page 12 News List

Mushroom factory triggers controversy in small US town


On the face of it, mushrooms would seem to be just the kind of gentle industry that this scenic corner of Sullivan County would like to entice. After all, programs abound in the Hudson Valley to keep what little agriculture remains.

But the mushroom operation envisioned for a parcel of land about 112km north of New York City is not a drowsy roadside farm, but what critics have called a high-tech agribusiness fortress.

A Japanese company, Yukiguni Maitake Manufacturing Corporation of America, wants to build a windowless building with a two-acre footprint that would produce 30 tonnes of maitake mushrooms daily. No one disputes that the plant would draw in hundreds of thousands of gallons of water a day from the aquifer beneath it to aid in the indoor growing process.

"The name of the company is manufacturing, and that's what they're doing: They're manufacturing mushrooms," said Eileen Haworth Weil, a retired professor of English and an opponent of the plant. "It will change the ambience of the town."

The parent company, Yukiguni Maitake, already has five such plants in Japan that together yield 120 tonnes of mushrooms a day. Eager to realize its first overseas venture, the company has tried to foster a market for maitakes in the US by selling them to top chefs in New York.

The company says that its plant here will be absolutely clean, with no pesticides or manure used to cultivate the maitakes, which are prized for their nutty flavor. Indeed, they are actually grown in a mixture of sawdust, corn and oat bran.

Maitakes have long been popular in Japan and may possess cancer-fighting properties. Investigators at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center are trying to determine whether maitake extract can stimulate the immune system in a trial involving breast cancer patients.

When up and running, the US$90 million operation, on 19.5 hectares, would create 210 permanent jobs and generate more than US$1 million a year in tax revenue for the town, county and local schools, according to Kazunori Kameyama, president and chief executive of Yukiguni Maitake Manufacturing.

The town of Mamakating's zoning and planning boards signed off on the company's plans after an environmental review. But many there are not convinced, and an opposition movement is clouding the company's prospects as it awaits final site plan approval and a special-use permit.

Opponents say the building, which would rise to 24m at its highest point, would mar the area, which includes part of the Shawangunk Ridge -- beloved by hikers and nature photographers, among others -- and the Delaware & Hudson Canal Linear Park. Some worry that the plant will tax the aquifer during periods of drought.

They also criticize the town for not subjecting the company to a more rigorous environmental review. Kameyama, who had to address more than 20 environmental issues, scoffed at that idea.

Scores of signs proclaiming "No Mushroom Plant" have sprouted along roads and on the sides of barns. The Basha Kill Area Association, a local nonprofit group that protects the largest freshwater wetlands in southeastern New York, has filed a lawsuit against the town's planning board. Another lawsuit was filed against the town's zoning board of appeals by a couple whose property abuts the Yukiguni land.

Opponents even fielded a slate of candidates in last fall's local elections. The slate lost, but one candidate came within several votes of unseating the town supervisor.

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