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Report: 2 Nebraska biofuel plants among biggest emitters of toxic pollutants

The Lincoln Journal Star - 6/13/2024

A new report published Wednesday by an environmental watchdog said biofuel manufacturing facilities, including ethanol plants, are responsible for as much hazardous air pollutants in the United States as oil refineries.

The Environmental Integrity Project found biofuel plants routinely release high levels of hazardous chemicals including formaldehyde — a known carcinogen — as well as other pollutants like acetaldehyde, acrolein and hexane, often in violation of state and federal permits.

“Farm to Fumes: Hazardous Air Pollution from Biofuel Production,” as the report is titled, said the rapid expansion of the biofuel industry and a lack of adequate regulation have led to millions of pounds of pollutants being belched into the air each year.

“Despite its green image, the biofuels industry releases a surprising amount of hazardous air pollution that puts local communities at risk,” said Courtney Bernhardt, director of research for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. “And this problem is exacerbated by EPA’s lack of regulation.”

Two of the 24 plants based in Nebraska were listed among the biggest emitters of several toxic pollutants highlighted in the report, which is drawn from the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory and enforcement reports.

Blair, Columbus plants highlighted

The Cargill plant in Blair was the largest emitter of formaldehyde among biofuel facilities in the U.S. in 2022, according to the report, releasing some 30,587 pounds of the chemical deemed “a highly toxic systemic poison” by the Centers for Disease Control.

The Blair facility was also highlighted as the single largest emitter of acrolein — a chemical that can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and respiratory and eye irritation — in the U.S. regardless of industry, releasing nearly 35,000 pounds in 2022.

Cargill in 2022 also released some 76,215 pounds of acetaldehyde, a chemical produced during the ethanol fermentation process that can cause irritation to eyes, skin and the respiratory tract.

That makes Cargill the sixth highest emitter of acetaldehyde among biofuel plants in the country, the EIP reported, as well as the 26th highest of all industrial plants in the U.S. regardless of industry.

Meanwhile, the Archer Daniels Midland Dry and Wet Mill in Columbus ranked eighth in 2022 with 58,781 pounds of acetaldehyde, which is released during the ethanol fermentation process and has been found to cause irritation to the eyes, skin and respiratory tract.

The EIP also said that while the biofuel industry paints itself as climate-friendly, facilities routinely release large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The report notes that some facilities release carbon dioxide at a level equal to some coal-fired power plants.

Archer Daniels Midland in Columbus, for example, ranked fourth among biofuel refineries in the amount of greenhouse gases it pumped into the atmosphere in 2022, according to data from the EPA. The plant released 1.1 million pounds of CO2 in the most recent year for which data is available.

On Wednesday, the nonprofit started in 2002 by former EPA lawyers said the report reflects the favorable regulatory environment for the biofuel industry, marked by generous subsidies and mandates that have allowed capacity to quadruple, as well as a lack of enforcement.

Between July 2021 and May 2024, for example, more than 41% of biofuel plants violated their air pollution permits at least once, the EIP report found, including several plants in Nebraska that routinely ran afoul of environmental regulations.

According to the EIP’s findings, ADM in Columbus had a high-priority violation in each of the 12 quarters over the three-year period, while E-Energy Adams had 11 violations and Green Plains in Wood River received 10 violations. Other facilities had fewer violations, according to the EIP.

The report notes that the violation status "is not necessarily indicative of where" a facility currently stands, as plants could have addressed the violation without the information being updated in the EPA's system.

The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy said the six facilities listed as accruing high-priority violations within the report are all currently in compliance, however.

Amanda Woita, a public information officer with NDEE, said the agency submits information to an EPA data exchange, noting the portal "does not accept codes for when a facility returns to compliance."

Five of the six biofuel plants flagged for being out of compliance have since returned to compliance for more than a year. ADM in Columbus was issued a letter of noncompliance in February 2023 and returned to compliance in April 2024, according to NDEE.

Report shines light on 'vile failure'

In a virtual press conference on Wednesday, Buffalo Bruce, the conservation chair of the Nebraska Chapter of the Sierra Club, applauded the report, saying it shone a light on what he called the “vile failure” of the corn-to-fuel industry.

"This report adds to the mounting evidence that biofuel production is only being kept alive by a massive set of federal and state subsidies and regulations that serve as industrial welfare," Bruce said.

Dawn Caldwell, executive director for Renewable Fuels Nebraska, declined to comment, calling the Environmental Integrity Project “an extremist group.”

The study from EIP also outlined several recommendations it said would help curb "the environmental problems caused by the biofuel boom."

First, the watchdog group said EPA should reverse a 2007 decision that allowed ethanol producers to emit more than twice the level of air pollution before needing to mitigate the emissions.

The EIP also said state and federal regulators should require better monitoring and control of hazardous air pollutants along the perimeter of their plants to detect the levels of chemicals drifting toward neighboring communities.

The report also recommends EPA and state regulators like the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy more vigorously enforce biofuel plants, and require facilities to expand emissions testing to improve accuracy of their reporting.

"EPA needs to end its permitting loopholes for large ethanol plants and start requiring the kind of fenceline air pollution monitoring and cleanup actions the agency already requires for oil refineries," Bernhardt said.

Another recommendation calls on federal and state governments to end subsidies and mandates — such as one passed by the Nebraska Legislature in 2023 requiring gas stations to offer fuel blended with up to 15% ethanol — and the focus be shifted instead to solar and wind energy production.

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