ethanol plants — which produce a corn-based fuel trumpeted as
less-polluting than regular gasoline — have contaminated the
state's rivers and air. At times, developers built plants
without the required state permits designed to limit pollution.
State officials learned about some of the new plants by reading
Ethanol plants among Iowa's polluters
The rapid growth of the industry has resulted in a 'whole host' of
REGISTER STAFF WRITER
Ethanol is supposed
to be easy on the environment, but the plants that make the corn-based,
clean-burning fuel have fouled Iowa's air and water, a Des Moines Sunday
Register investigation has found.
"When it was ramping up, it was not a pretty sight," said Wayne
Gieselman, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources'
Internal documents from the natural resources department, obtained by
the Register, show that a team of 18 department employees met in late
June to discuss how to deal with a range of environmental problems
surrounding the expansion of Iowa's $500 million-a-year ethanol
The pollution violations are varied and in some cases have resulted in
produces nearly 30 percent of U.S. ethanol. Ten more plants are
in development. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has
forced air-pollution cuts at some plants. The Iowa Department of
Natural Resources has launched its own crackdown, documents
obtained by the Des Moines Sunday Register show.
plants - which produce a third of the nation's ethanol supply - have
sent syrup, batches of bad ethanol and sewage into streams. As the
pollutants decomposed, the waters lost oxygen, threatening fish.
The facilities emitted so much formaldehyde and toluene into the air
that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency forced several large
companies to install new equipment. Cargill Inc. on Sept. 1 agreed to
spend $130 million to cut air pollution at ethanol and other processing
plants in Iowa and 12 other states under an agreement with federal
officials say the doubling of capacity at many ethanol plants
will mean new air pollution concerns. New state water
regulations may make it impossible for new plants to locate on
small, rural streams, possibly pushing them to spots where odors
will be a bigger issue with neighbors.
A plant in Ashton
was built on a floodplain without a permit. Several plants had crews
that burned construction rubble outdoors, which is illegal, inspectors
said. Many have sent dust from gravel and corn kernels wafting onto
Some plants were built without required construction permits.
"We've had a whole host of notices of violations," said environmental
inspector Ken Hessenius of the DNR's regional office in Spencer.
Gieselman, the environmental protection chief, said many of the
violations occur at smaller plants.
"These are often a
group of farmers who got together and didn't realize they were managing
a pretty big operation," he said.
Corn Processors in Galva paid two $10,000 fines primarily because of
excess air emissions. Siouxland Energy and Livestock Cooperative in
Sioux Center paid $10,000 for failing to get required air permits and
for excess sewage pollution. It also had a 1,000-gallon syrup spill that
was not immediately reported to the state.
Other plants got notices from the state demanding improvements, testing
and documentation to make sure they weren't polluting more than allowed
by state law, Gieselman said.
Violations a sign
of a growing industry
has 17 ethanol plants, with 10 more either planned or under
construction, said Lucy Norton of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.
The new plants will produce 500 million gallons a year on top of the
current production of 1.1 billion gallons.
Mike Jerke, general
manager at Quad County Corn Processors, said the violations were signs
of growing pains in an industry that has grown rapidly as environmental
regulators tried to keep up. He said plant operators grasp the irony of
environmental violations in a business that is supposed to help improve
"The folks in the industry by nature want to do the right thing," said
Jerke, immediate past president of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.
"Everybody is aware that we are in an industry that is providing an
alternative to oil and gas, that is renewable and from corn grown here.
People definitely hold onto the standard of wanting to be in
So why weren't they
Jerke said no one, including the state, realized when the ethanol
industry began to take off in 2002 that emissions of potentially
cancer-causing chemicals would be so high until a Minnesota report found
trouble. State inspectors agreed.
After 2002, the industry agreed to install air pollution equipment to
cut emissions by 90 percent, Jerke said.
"We contacted every ethanol plant that was operating after that," said
Catharine Fitzsimmons, the state's top air-quality official. Compliance
has improved, she said.
try to keep up
inspectors discovered plant construction contractors were telling
farmers the plants wouldn't discharge into waterways.
"They do," Gieselman said. The state has forced many of the plants to
install holding ponds so the pollutants decompose or settle out before
the water flows into streams used by fishing enthusiasts, canoeists and
However, with plants now doubling capacity and new water regulations
clamping down on discharges into streams, the department expects plenty
of work in coming years, said Gieselman.
The state has
scrambled to keep up. Ethanol plant backers like to keep their plans
secret for competitive reasons until long into the process. Chuck Corell
of the state's water quality staff said that means the state often
learns of new plants through newspaper articles.
"We are not finding out about these until plants are under construction
or almost done," Corell said.
Plants that need air quality construction permits have to apply before
construction, but sewage permits are required only six months before
Corell said the plants have dumped sewage that contained chloride,
copper and other wastes that could be trouble for fish and plants. The
problem: "There really isn't an economical way to get the stuff out of
the water," he said.
rules would affect plants
environmental protection worker in northwest Iowa, said the pollution
was strong enough to kill fish at times, although he doesn't know of any
specific fish kills caused by ethanol plants. That may be because the
streams were chronically polluted and didn't have any fish nearby, he
Four of the five
largest ethanol plants in the northwest corner of the state had
"significant violations," Hessenius said. A state inspector reported
that a creek next to Siouxland Energy and Livestock Co-op in Sioux
Center was milky and smelled like sewage. Otter Creek Ethanol LLC in
Ashton was built in a flood plain, and the owners were told to build a
levee or dike.
Jerke, the Galva plant manager, said one of the challenges is deciding
what the rules are in the first place.
themselves are often open to interpretation," he said, adding that those
interpretations can vary among the state's regional environmental
"It's a learning curve we are all going through," Jerke said. "We're
working together as we go through this huge expansion."
More trouble will come if the state's proposed new water quality
standards are approved, Corell said.
"My concern is that these plants favor remote locations and often
discharge into small streams, and in some cases dry streams," Corell
The new rules would
protect streams based on how much life they could have, rather than
protecting waters based on what seemed reasonable to achieve under local
conditions and environmental threats.
"In the past, those small streams didn't get the protection that
permanent streams did," Corell said. "Now they will."
The new rules would protect small streams now getting sewage from the
plants, plus streams next to new plant sites. The ethanol plants would
be among the facilities that would have to sharply cut pollution going
into the streams.
Jim Stricker, a
state environmental inspector based in Des Moines, said the ethanol
industry isn't the only seemingly environmentally friendly one to run
afoul of state regulations. So have recycling plants and compost
operations. "It happens all the time," Stricker said.
to go back to article