The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will require ethanol plants in Minnesota to install millions of dollars worth of pollution control equipment, under a settlement announced Wednesday in St. Paul. The agreement is expected to be a model for the ethanol industry nationwide.
The EPA began widespread testing of ethanol plants after citizens' complaints about Gopher State Ethanol, a converted brewery in St. Paul, triggered an investigation of air emissions there. Testing at Gopher State, and later at plants across the Midwest, showed they emitted high levels of carbon monoxide and other pollutants. This spring, the EPA summoned industry represenatives to Chicago to begin negotiations on how to solve the problem.
The settlement announced by EPA regional administrator Tom Skinner will require 12 of Minnesota's 14 ethanol plants to install pollution control technology that will cost about $2 million per plant. Skinner says it will reduce emissions of what are known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, by 95 percent. Those chemicals include formaldehyde and others that are known to cause cancer in animals.
"In terms of excess emmissions from ethanol plants in Minnesota, this could be described as the beginning of the end. The next step is to get those control measures in place," says Skinner. "As to the rest of the country, this really is the end of the beginning. We are going to use these settlements as a model and export that model to other regions."
The settlement requires ethanol plants to install thermal oxidizers -- devices that burn off VOC emmissions before they can leave the stack. The plants will also face stricter limits on other pollutants. The agreement gives plants from one to three years to comply. The EPA will also require each facility to pay fines ranging from $29 to $39,000.
Most of the state's ethanol plants are owned by farmers. Ethanol coalition spokesman Randy Doyal says the $2 million cost of the new equipment is significant. It amounts to about 5 percent of the total cost of building a new ethanol plant.
"The farmers are going to have to pay the cost, and I can tell you they're not very happy about it," says Doyal. "But they're going to do it, because they feel the same way that most of us who own the facilities do -- that it's something we have to do to be good environmental neighbors."
Doyal said the cost could put Minnesota ethanol plants at a competitive disadvantage at first. But he said it might give them an edge later, as other plants are forced to comply with emission standards as well.
Two Minnesota ethanol plants, Al-Corn Clean Fuel in Claremont, and Gopher State Ethanol in St. Paul, have already installed thermal oxidizers. The oxidizer in St. Paul has been plagued with problems and is currently out of order. People living nearby have continued to complain of odors and ill health effects.
Neighborhood residents learned of the press conference only a few hours before it took place, but a few turned out for the announcment. John Birrenbach lives three blocks from the plant. He says the thermal oxidizer has helped reduce the odor some, but is not the complete answer. But he was encouraged to see representatives of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency appear alongside the EPA and Justice Department officials.
"I'm hoping -- with the MPCA now actually on our side instead of being on the side of the ethanol industry, and allowing them to put forth all of this kind of stuff -- that maybe now we'll get some closer monitoring of the plant, and maybe be able to keep them in compliance," says Birrenbach.
The agreement gives Gopher State one year to meet Clean Air Act requirements. An MPCA spokeperson says the thermal oxidizer is expected to be back in operation in eight weeks.More from MPR