Pollution Is Called a Byproduct of a ‘Clean’ Fuel
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
FAIR USE NOTICE. This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. India Resource Center is making this article available in our efforts to advance the understanding of corporate accountability, human rights, labor rights, social and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.