Glycerine and the Market


Glycerine is a clear, colorless, odorless, viscous liquid with a sweet taste, derived from petrochemical and natural feedstocks with the latter obtained from animal fat and vegetable oil products from grains. The market pays a premium for the kosher vegetable and USP natural glycerine. There are over 2,000 established uses for glycerine in the drug, food, beverage, chemicals and synthetic material industries. It is used in cosmetics, toiletries, sweeteners, solvents, softening agents, cough syrups, surface coatings, paints and many other products.

Crude Glycerine is an impure form of Glycerine and is primarily made as a by-product. Recently the reinvention of biodiesel has created much of the crude glycerine as it is a by-product from the manufacture of biodiesel. This supply has created market disruptions as it typically has many impurities in it including methanol, water and salts. A saleable grade of crude glycerine is generally at least 80% glycerine with less than 1% methanol in it. Crude Glycerine that has lower levels of glycerine or higher levels of methanol often has little or no value.

As a chemical processor Biofuels Technology LLC with its innovative and proprietary technologies is able to find uses for various grades of crude glycerine. This is done in an environmentally friendly method yeilding economic benefits without the need for government subsidies. 



The Glycerin Spread

Refined glycerin prices have remained solid since earlier this year, but biodiesel producers selling crude glycerin, while retrieving modestly higher returns for their byproduct compared to last year, are still entering a saturated crude market. In the meantime, alternative uses for crude glycerin and capacity to refine it are on the rise.
By Ron Kotrba

Glycerin prices dropped through the floor last year as biodiesel producers received market-bottom selling prices of 2 cents a pound or less for the crude byproduct. However, 2 cents a pound looks better on the balance sheets than writing a check to get rid of it. “We saw the bottom of the market late last summer,” says Dave Elsenbast, vice president of procurement for Renewable Energy Group Inc. (REG), who markets glycerin for six biodiesel plants in its network. “Since then, we have seen a gradual, steady increase in market pricing coming from an increase in demand.” REG is currently receiving between 6 and 10 cents a pound for unrefined glycerin. According to him, the pricing trend is continuing. “Glycerin prices are higher now than they were just a month ago,” Elsenbast says. Matt Upmeyer, risk management consultant with FC Stone, says he saw glycerin prices tick up slightly in July between a half a penny and a penny per pound. “Everybody is aware of it,” he says. “It helps, but by no means is it the saving grace.”

Although high vegetable oil prices are curbing some of the enthusiasm from would-be biodiesel projects, analysts still expect steady growth from the U.S. biodiesel industry. Every million gallons of biodiesel produced pours roughly another hundred thousand gallons of crude glycerin into an already saturated market. “Most companies see the biodiesel industry as being in a growth mode,” Elsenbast says. “There’s a relatively small volume of glycerin coming from the biodiesel sector now compared with what’s expected from it in the future.” While raw glycerin returns are only slightly higher, some experts say it’s the glycerin refiners who are turning a welcomed profit over the past several months, as prices for the purer varieties have held quite strong. John Urbanchuk, a director with the Pennsylvania-based consulting firm LECG, says refined glycerin is retrieving anywhere from 30 to 40 cents a pound, depending on quality, grade and purity. “The refined glycerin market is strong,” Urbanchuk says. “The raw market, however, is still weak as we continue to see large supplies of unrefined glycerin heading for the market.” It therefore becomes a question of what to do with all of the crude. Should it be refined in the more traditional sense for sale as technical, pharmaceutical or food grade glycerin, or can alternative uses for the low-priced raw product directly be found?

Domestic Refining Capacity, Foreign Influence
Cargill Inc. and Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM) are expanding their respective domestic refining capacities, but the smaller producers typically are not prepared to invest the necessary capital—a glycerin refinery can cost an average independent producer upwards of $20 million. When the financials are done on the economics of biodiesel production today, the ability to add value to the product streams is an important factor for the profitability of the business. “Biodiesel producers with raw glycerin need to pay attention and make the necessary investments to clean it up,” Urbanchuk says. In Iowa Falls, Iowa, Cargill built a 30-million-pound per year glycerin refinery next to its 37.5 MMgy biodiesel plant. In Europe, those same majors—Cargill, ADM and others—have expanded their byproduct refining capacities over the past several years in large part to capitalize on excessive crude glycerin supplies coming from the booming European biodiesel industry. The creation of this additional handling capacity eventually led to a surplus of refined product in Europe. These European and Asian imports were helping to satisfy American companies’ needs for dynamite grade, yellow distilled and chemically pure glycerin in commercial industrial applications, and USP- or food-grade glycerin. Scattered reports indicate that refined glycerin exporters from Europe’s biodiesel boom and Southeast Asia’s palm-based oleochemical enterprises were discouraged because of the low U.S. selling price of glycerin. These exporters purportedly sought closer and more lucrative outlets, notably in China—a country being scrutinized because of its use of unhealthy ingredients exported in products coupled with poor regulatory oversight from the Chinese government. “The situation in China has caught a lot of media attention lately,” Upmeyer says. “It will lend a great deal of support to the U.S. glycerin markets.” For U.S. biodiesel and raw glycerin producers, Elsenbast says there is growing interest in the export markets—especially Asia. Urbanchuk agrees that there are export opportunities in developing Asian countries. In any event, today’s modest U.S. crude gains and even higher refined glycerin prices suggest to some that refined glycerin imports from those same European and southeast Asian processors may once again return, helping to balance price increases with more supplies in the style of classic market economics. At the same time, modest increases in domestic glycerin refining capacity and productive research and development efforts scouting out new commercial applications for crude are expected to create more demand in time for an increased supply of domestic unrefined glycerin.
New Applications Strengthen Crude Outlook
REG ships a lot of crude glycerin to domestic refiners, and to feed and industrial markets, Elsenbast says, adding that he expects to see an even greater spread between crude and refined glycerin prices in the future. Low prices and chemical versatility have created a plethora of research in an effort to find practical, alternative uses for the abundant biomaterial. From ambitious projects looking into the production of ethanol from crude glycerin to less dramatic but important work examining glycerin’s nutritional value in livestock diets, crude glycerin is the subject of vast study. Many universities and extension services are studying how the sweet glycerin affects livestock diets as a replacement for high-priced corn. “When glycerin’s market value was as low as it was last summer, it begets a lot of research and brain power looking to add value,” Elsenbast says. “Now I think we’re seeing the fruits of those efforts.” Some of these research efforts are already in the planning stages to go commercial.

In May, Ashland Inc. and Cargill Inc. announced intentions to form a joint venture stand-alone company to develop and produce many different chemical products from renewable resources like glycerin. Manufacturing of biobased propylene glycol will be the first line of focus for the joint venture, beginning with a 65,000 metric ton per year plant in Europe with a specific location yet to be determined. In July, Ashland and Cargill announced a technology licensing agreement with Davy Process Technology Ltd., a Johnson Matthey Co., which owns a highly efficient vapor-phase hydrogenation technology for use in the manufacturing of propylene glycol from glycerin. Jim Millis, Cargill’s technical director of industrial bioproducts, says the company’s expertise in refining glycerin will complement and further improve the technology now under license. Urbanchuk believes these developments are illustrative of the kinds of work underway to find new uses—pushing greater demand and eventually more attractive prices—for the crude byproduct. “It’s a positive step,” he says, even though the initial plant is to be sited somewhere in Europe. The development of similar and more widespread commercial uses of crude glycerin are coming but it will take time, Urbanchuk predicts. “I think within two to three years we’ll see substantial developments in feed and industrial applications.” In the meantime, byproduct quality is of the essence for biodiesel producers, Upmeyer says. “The methanol content [and other impurities] must be very well managed,” he says. “Biodiesel does not represent the normal glycerin production stream, so those not focused on quality will have difficulty in marketing their byproduct.”

***Pollution Is Called a Byproduct of a ‘Clean’ Fuel

Published: March 11, 2008

MOUNDVILLE, Ala. — After residents of the Riverbend Farms subdivision noticed that an oily, fetid substance had begun fouling the Black Warrior River, which runs through their backyards, Mark Storey, a retired petroleum plant worker, hopped into his boat to follow it upstream to its source.

Skip to next paragraph
Dana Mixer for The New York Times

Nelson Brooke, the executive director of Black Warrior Riverkeeper, walked along an area of the river near Moundville, Ala.

Nelson Brooke

Oil and grease from a biodiesel plant had been released.

It turned out to be an old chemical factory that had been converted into Alabama’s first biodiesel plant, a refinery that intended to turn soybean oil into earth-friendly fuel.

“I’m all for the plant,” Mr. Storey said. “But I was really amazed that a plant like that would produce anything that could get into the river without taking the necessary precautions.”

But the oily sheen on the water returned again and again, and a laboratory analysis of a sample taken in March 2007 revealed that the ribbon of oil and grease being released by the plant — it resembled Italian salad dressing — was 450 times higher than permit levels typically allow, and that it had drifted at least two miles downstream.

The spills, at the Alabama Biodiesel Corporation plant outside this city about 17 miles from Tuscaloosa, are similar to others that have come from biofuel plants in the Midwest. The discharges, which can be hazardous to birds and fish, have many people scratching their heads over the seeming incongruity of pollution from an industry that sells products with the promise of blue skies and clear streams.

“Ironic, isn’t it?” said Barbara Lynch, who supervises environmental compliance inspectors for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “This is big business. There’s a lot of money involved.”

Iowa leads the nation in biofuel production, with 42 ethanol and biodiesel refineries in production and 18 more plants under construction, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. In the summer of 2006, a Cargill biodiesel plant in Iowa Falls improperly disposed of 135,000 gallons of liquid oil and grease, which ran into a stream killing hundreds of fish.

According to the National Biodiesel Board, a trade group, biodiesel is nontoxic, biodegradable and suitable for sensitive environments, but scientists say that position understates its potential environmental impact.

“They’re really considered nontoxic, as you would expect,” said Bruce P. Hollebone, a researcher with Environment Canada in Ottawa and one of the world’s leading experts on the environmental impact of vegetable oil and glycerin spills.

“You can eat the stuff, after all,” Mr. Hollebone said. “But as with most organic materials, oil and glycerin deplete the oxygen content of water very quickly, and that will suffocate fish and other organisms. And for birds, a vegetable oil spill is just as deadly as a crude oil spill.”

Other states have also felt the impact.

Leanne Tippett Mosby, a deputy division director of environmental quality for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, said she was warned a year ago by colleagues in other states that biodiesel producers were dumping glycerin, the main byproduct of biodiesel production, contaminated with methanol, another waste product that is classified as hazardous.

Glycerin, an alcohol that is normally nontoxic, can be sold for secondary uses, but it must be cleaned first, a process that is expensive and complicated. Expanded production of biodiesel has flooded the market with excess glycerin, making it less cost-effective to clean and sell.

Ms. Tippett Mosby did not have to wait long to see the problem. In October, an anonymous caller reported that a tanker truck was dumping milky white goop into Belle Fountain Ditch, one of the many man-made channels that drain Missouri’s Bootheel region. That substance turned out to be glycerin from a biodiesel plant.

In January, a grand jury indicted a Missouri businessman in the discharge, which killed at least 25,000 fish and wiped out the population of fat pocketbook mussels, an endangered species.

Back in Alabama, Nelson Brooke of Black Warrior Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the Black Warrior River and its tributaries, received a report in September 2006 of a fish kill that stretched 20 miles downstream from Moundville. Even though Mr. Brooke said he found oil in the water around the dead fish, the state Department of Environmental Management determined that natural, seasonal changes in oxygen levels in the water could have been the culprit. The agency did not charge Alabama Biodiesel.

In August, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, in a complaint filed in Federal District Court, documented at least 24 occasions when oil was spotted in the water near the plant.

Richard Campo, vice president of Alabama Biodiesel, did not respond to requests for an interview, but Clay A. Tindal, a Tuscaloosa lawyer representing the refinery, called the suit’s claims “sheer speculation, conjecture, and unsupported bald allegations.” Mr. Tindal said that “for various reasons,” the plant was not now producing fuel.

The company has filed a motion to dismiss the complaint on the ground that it has entered into a settlement agreement with state officials that requires it to pay a $12,370 fine and to obtain proper discharge permits.

Don Scott, an engineer for the National Biodiesel Board, acknowledges that some producers have had problems complying with environmental rules but says those violations have been infrequent in an industry that nearly doubled in size in one year, to 160 plants in the United States at the end of 2007 from 90 plants at the end of 2006.

Mr. Scott said that the board had been working with state and environmental agencies to educate member companies and that the troubles were “growing pains.”

Ms. Lynch said some of the violations were the result of an industry that was inexperienced in the manufacturing process and its wastes. But in other instances, she said, companies are skirting the permit process to get their plants up and running faster.

“Our fines are only so high,” Ms. Lynch said. “It’s build first, permit second.”

In October 2005, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management informed Alabama Biodiesel that it would need an individual pollution discharge permit to operate, but the company never applied for one. The company operated for more than a year without a permit and without facing any penalties from state regulators, though inspectors documented unpermitted discharges on two occasions.

For some, the troubles of the industry seem to outweigh its benefits.

“They’re environmental Jimmy Swaggarts, in my opinion,” said Representative Brian P. Bilbray, Republican of California, who spoke out against the $18 billion energy package recently passed by Congress that provides tax credits for biofuels. “What is being sold as green fuel just doesn’t pencil out.”

Pollution Violations May Test Public Support for Biodiesel
As relative newcomers to the industrial world, biodiesel producers, who are generally regarded as environmentally friendly, need to be good neighbors when it comes to properly disposing of byproducts. Although the scientific and regulatory communities have yet to agree on the toxicity of biodiesel byproducts, the industry should be prepared as the regulatory framework for the fledgling industry materializes.
By Sarah Smith

Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke is a biodiesel supporter—so much so that he makes his own backyard brew. When Alabama Biodiesel Corp. took over a local mulching operation, Brooke welcomed it to the neighborhood—in this case, the Carthage Branch of the Black Warrior River. Brooke wondered about potential pollution from the refinery, but told the company he hoped it would be a shining example as the state’s first biodiesel venture. Now his nonprofit organization is embroiled in a lawsuit with A-B Corp. after Brooke discovered dark-colored pollutants floating along the waterway that is a major recreational area for Alabamians.

In July 2006, a group of golfers on the Meadow Hills Golf Course in Iowa Falls, Iowa, was startled to find several dead fish and a milky-colored discharge in School Creek, which runs along the course. A subsequent investigation by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources traced the discharge to a Cargill biodiesel plant and glycerin refinery. A septic system contractor allegedly disposed of a sludge wastewater mixture from the facilities on acreage at a recycling site that seeped into the creek. Cargill entered into a partial consent order with Iowa and paid a $100,000 fine for the pollution, without admitting fault.
In Missouri a farmer was spotted discharging the contents of a tanker into Belle Fountain Ditch in October 2007. State and federal responders found decomposing glycerin and methanol generated from the Natural Biodiesel Plant near Hermondale. The farmer now faces criminal charges under U.S. Environmental Pollution Agency laws, for allegedly violating the Clean Water Act. U.S. EPA Region 7 Administrator John Askew says anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 fish and other aquatic life died as a result of the discharged pollutants. “EPA supports the growth of the renewable fuels industry, however workers need to be environmentally responsible,” he says. The plant itself is not charged with any violations.

These incidents may cause biodiesel to get a reputation as a bad neighbor. But a closer look reveals a fledgling industry struggling with a host of issues that go beyond simple acts of pollution. Perception is everything, within and outside of the industry. The perception that this renewable fuel may be environmentally hazardous is new to the industry, and the public. That’s because the scientific and regulatory communities seem divided on the toxicity of biodiesel byproducts.

How Widespread are the Problems?
The National Response Center, a division of the U.S. Coast Guard, tracks oil and chemical spills. The center operates a national spill hotline and, from 1991 to date, the NRC recorded 36 glycerin spills throughout the United States. Of those, only five are attributed directly to biodiesel plants. The Missouri spill was reported as intentional. The remaining spills were attributed to operator mistakes, hose problems and gasket failures. Many of the remaining 31 spills are attributed to transporters—trucking companies, rail lines and other businesses. If any of the transporting entities was moving glycerin on behalf of a biodiesel refiner, there is no way to ascertain this from the database. And although the center has recorded more than 10,000 diesel spills in that same time period, a spokeswoman says the center doesn’t differentiate biodiesel from petroleum-based fuel and the database right now can’t track source queries, so pinpointing biodiesel polluters as a whole isn’t possible yet without viewing each spill individually.

Another difficulty is that records may be scattered between state and federal agencies. “Depending on what the substance is and what happened to it, it can fall under any number of statutes,” says Dave Janek, EPA Region 8 public information officer. “There’s nothing we track as biodiesel.” He says a biodiesel pollutant might be airborne if the fuel is burned, it could be an underground tank issue if a storage tank leaks, or could be a water violation if there’s seepage or spills into waterways. “This might change as we track more energy-related things,” he says. Janek says he is hearing of glycerin pollution, but he doesn’t recall any specific incidents. The EPA database is similar to the NRC’s, in so far as it doesn’t track specific elements or polluters by industry. “Unless we have a listing for Acme Biodiesel, these could be hard things to track down,” he says.

In 2007, the Des Moines Register of Des Moines, Iowa, conducted a statewide survey of biofuels violations for the previous six years, finding 394 air, water or land regulation violations scattered among Iowa’s ethanol and biodiesel plants. The majority of the violations came in meeting sewage pollution limits and discharges of wastewater, or spills of wastewater, into waterways. Because the newspaper considered the biofuels industry as a whole, biodiesel might legitimately argue “guilt by association.”

Too Much Confusion, Too Little Compliance
States eager to get onboard the alternative energy train might shoulder some responsibility for their zeal. Brooke says that’s what happened in Alabama. He says officials from Alabama’s Department of Environmental Management were so intent on working with A-B Corp. to get its permits in order that they neglected the obvious spills and fish kills on the river. The plant kept operating until his agency filed a notice to sue, he says. And it was only after the lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court that the biodiesel company began addressing the compliance measures, Brooke says, expressing frustration that it had to come to this. “They said that the spills were isolated accidents, that they weren’t attributable to an ongoing problem or ongoing discharge” he says. “There was pollution leaving the site without a permit for a year and a half” starting in 2006.
ADEM spokesman Scott Hughes denies that the state delayed policing the spills because the lawsuit and the state’s consent order came within days of each other in August 2007. “We documented violations at the facility and we initiated enforcement actions in what we considered a timely manner,” he says. “We issued a consent order for the facility for the violations that occurred and we feel we addressed the enforcement and noncompliance.” The state documented two separate discharges of “oil sheens” and fined the refinery more than $12,000. But the department didn’t find irreparable harm to the 300-mile-long waterway. When regulators looked into the issue of whether the biodiesel plant had gained an economic advantage by operating without the permit, the department noted that, “The A-B Corp. failed to obtain an individual [pollution] permit for its biodiesel operation which saved money on application and monitoring costs,” but then determined that no significant economic benefit was derived by the plant. Officials from Alabama Biodiesel did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

The DesMoines Register found numerous problems with the early permitting stages, which embarrassed and angered state regulatory agencies in Iowa. But the newspaper also noted that trade associations, which aggressively promote the biofuels industry, included numerous board members that came from plants that had been fined. One analyst wonders if promotion of biodiesel as an earth-friendly fuel may have created a misperception within the industry. Because so many people “regard biodiesel and its byproducts as organic, dumping or spreading those waste materials becomes an ethical issue, not necessarily a legal or regulatory one,” says Rick Kment, a biofuels analyst for DTN. “Is it illegal to dump glycerin in most states?” he questions.
In Iowa and many other states, there are regulations prohibiting ground application of waste products when a chemical mixture gets to a concentrated level, a toxic level that typically depletes oxygen contents in soil and water or significantly alters existing soil nutrients. All states follow federal regulations that prohibit wastewater discharge when it disturbs surface waters. Many states have enacted laws prohibiting land application of industrial discharges when such practices produce objectionable odors, colors or other “aesthetically objectionable conditions.” These are generally listed as “duty to avoid pollution” statutes. In Minnesota, notification is not required if 5 gallons or less of petroleum is discharged. The volume and chemical makeup of the discharge, and the amount of suspended solids, will usually trigger regulations already in place, and duties to disclose discharges. Iowa officials found the School Creek discharge to be “acutely toxic.” Nearly 600 fish died.

In both Alabama and Iowa, officials and opponents discussed the propensities for vegetable oil discharge from biodiesel plants to dissolve oxygen. The discharge is high in biochemical oxygen demand and when broken down by bacteria in water, it depletes the oxygen content of the water, causing fish to die. Brooke maintains this “irreparable harm to the environment” is why such elements should not be permitted to be discharged at any level. The oxygen depletion issue is the same in wet soil. Glycerin is another matter.
“The ability to land-apply glycerin is going to be dependent on what constituents are in the glycerin and at what levels,” says Nancy Drach, principal planner for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Environmental Review Division. “Glycerin from biodiesel facilities is generally dirty, it has a large and varied number of constituents and may also be hazardous,” she says. “Based on what limited knowledge I have to date from other states, it doesn’t land apply very well” due to its syrupy makeup.

Material Safety Data Sheets are a widely used system for cataloging information on chemicals, chemical compounds and chemical mixtures. They generally include instructions for the safe use and potential hazards associated with a particular material or product. The MSDS categorizes glycerin as an irritant and not necessarily a hazard for humans and animals. But it is deemed explosive if combined with certain oxidizers, and that brings it within the purview of a hazardous waste designation. Drach says she attended an environmental seminar in December 2006 where this explosive tendency was discussed at a roundtable. Consequently, disposal of glycerin in wastewater treatment facilities is widely prohibited. In Defiance, Ohio, firefighters said glycerin vapors from the biodiesel plant’s tanks were likely ignited by an electrical spark in January 2008 from an overhead garage door. The resulting explosion caused extensive damage to the plant. Biodiesel proponents say it’s the methanol component in the glycerin that is harmful, not the glycerin itself.

Whether glycerin should be considered harmful varies depending on who you ask. “I see no significant environmental threat from the glycerin byproduct, in itself,” says Dennis Wiesenborn, professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering at North Dakota State University. “Glycerin is not a hazardous chemical and breaks down readily in the environment. The crude glycerin from a biodiesel plant has been described as the wastebasket of the biodiesel process, in the sense that the catalyst, much of the oil impurities and methanol, go to this phase. There could conceivably be some impurity in the glycerin that could elevate the environmental risk, but I know of no threats given typical feedstocks and catalysts. It might be desirable to neutralize the residual catalyst as one safeguard.”

Glycerin’s level of toxicity, and knowledge of its effects, is at issue in Missouri, where the farmer is facing criminal charges. His attorneys argue that the glycerin and methanol applications may have been negligent but didn’t rise to the level of a criminal violation. The case was pending at press time.

Negligence and the unknown are Kment’s points. “The biodiesel industry is so different from the ethanol industry,” he says. “It’s gone from agricultural micro batches to a hobby type of industry to a trade industry. When you’re handling small amounts of these products like glycerin they don’t trip the [regulatory] radar. They’re viewed more as a nuisance.”

He compares glycerin disposal to dairy farmers spreading whey on their fields. It didn’t become an issue until states noticed spilled whey on the roadways, he says. Because whey has a high sodium content, it caused pavement to corrode, and states began enacting regulations. It was like salting roadways, which many states used to do during ice or snowstorms, Kment says. They don’t any more. There’s a learning curve associated with the fledgling biodiesel industry that will take a few years to sort out, Kment says. “These byproducts haven’t been traditionally viewed as manufacturing chemicals,” he says, nor has the wastewater that biodiesel plants generate.

The EPA’s Janek says the regulatory framework for a fledgling industry may need to grow as well. Some states, such as Iowa, do have mandates to police water violations. “In other states, if they don’t police these things, we’ll go in,” he says. States in the Corn Belt are more familiar with biofuels plants and are more apt to have regulations in place, he notes.

Nebraska’s Department of Environmental Quality has published a guidance document that’s considered a model in the industry, containing waste management tips for biodiesel plants. The document contains a number of factors in considering the potential for a hazardous waste determination and mentions glycerin’s “ignitability,” not its chemical makeup, as reason to categorize it as hazardous. High concentrations of methanol and wide variations in the pH scale of waste materials tilt the determination toward hazardous materials, the document indicates.

Alabama has similar provisions in its laws. “We’ve never been able to verify exactly what was in the discharge, but they did it in the absence of a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit from the state,” Brooke says. “It’s a federal criminal offense to be discharging pollution without a permit.” He says the oily discharge hampered residents from using the river, which is a major recreational area in Alabama. “People downstream were not able to enjoy the river for many different purposes, whether it was canoeing, boating or swimming,” he adds.

In addition to fining the biodiesel plant, Alabama ordered it to undergo a Best Management Practices review and issue to the state a report ensuring future compliance. Many states have management practice statutes along with duties to adhere to regulatory laws. These statutes put businesses, not just in the biodiesel industry, on notice that they must operate within certain standards of care for the public good.

Addressing the Issues
Because state regulations vary, biodiesel plant developers and operators, large and small, must educate themselves as to the laws guiding their plants. In Iowa, officials cited Cargill and its subcontractor for not testing its industrial sludge to determine the appropriate application rate, in this case 2 tons per acre per year, measured on a dry-weight basis. But the state also faulted Cargill and the subcontractor for not performing a soil determination test beforehand. And the companies were faulted for applying the sludge too close to a drain tile, and in failing to keep records of sample analysis and waste disposal operations. Finally, the companies were cited for not informing environmental authorities before opening the waste disposal sites. Cargill and its attorney did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Attorney’s for the Missouri farmer have requested numerous documents in discovery to determine if the oxygen depletion in the waters of Belle Fountain Ditch could be attributable to other environmental factors, and not simply to the presence of the glycerin and other byproducts dumped there.

In Alabama, plant officials temporarily shut down production as they worked to clean up the spills and stop future discharges. “We’ve had preliminary settlement meetings and feel confident it will be finalized within the next couple months,” Brooke says of the nonprofit organization’s lawsuit against the plant.

Testing, analysis, notification, record-keeping and education may be the keys. And as many plant operators move toward lower quality feedstocks, new regulations could arise. “I’m afraid I don’t have any detailed information comparing waste from animal fat-based biodiesel versus soy-based,” Wiesenborn says. “If the fat is a lower-quality feedstock such as yellow grease, I would expect more impurities in the glycerin, but not to a level that would result in a significantly greater environmental threat,” he says. But he suggests that plant operators employ cleaning methods as a precaution.

Kment believes solutions to the pollution issues will arise as they do with all fledgling endeavors. “The industry in some ways is growing so big,” he says. “Some of these issues that on a small scale would have been considered nuisance issues are now bigger. It’s so polarized in the media and society right now focusing on the environmental impact that these small issues, in view of the environmentally friendly atmosphere, really become a flashpoint.”

Website Builder