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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.”