Minnesota is launching an intensive program to help ethanol producers better comply with environmental laws after pollution control officials cited seven of the state's 22 ethanol plants for violations last year.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency imposed fines of more than $2 million on plants in 2009. The violations ranged from inadequate record keeping to illegally dumping wastewater into a lake -- a practice that went on for years at one plant.
Concerned that the fined are not serving as a deterrent, the agency plans to offer site visits, workshops and other opportunities to help ethanol plants learn how to comply with the rules.
Minnesota farmers are proud of pioneering ethanol production in the nation. The first plants, built in the 1980s, had their share of pollution problems. For the most part, those plants are operating properly now, officials say.
But a new batch of plants built in the last decade are having trouble following environmental rules.
"We have a problem with compliance in this industry," said Jeff Connell, the agency's compliance and enforcement manger.
Over the last three years the agency has issued more fines, and bigger fines, to ethanol plants than to other industries, Connell said. Fines have ranged from several thousand dollars to more than $1 millions.
In most industries, when the agency tells a company to do something, 90 percent of the time they do it, Connell said. Ethanol producers comply with state directives half the time, or less.
"It's indication to us that this is not a facility-by-facility problem, but much more industry-wide," Connell said.
Opponents of ethanol expansion in Minnesota have taken notice of the violations too.
Companies hire experienced engineers to design the plants and get the permits, and then they hire inexperienced people to run them, said Jeff Broberg, a geologist and president of the Minnesota Trout Association. He's spent a lot of time challenging a new ethanol plant proposed for southeastern Minnesota.
"So it seems like you have these high level professionals that go in in the front end and say, 'this is how all of this stuff needs to be done,'" Broberg said. "Everything gets built and turned over to the owner, and then they put some cowboy in charge of the plant that doesn't know how to comply."
POLLUTION VIOLATIONS IN 2009
- 2/23/09 - Heartland Corn Products, Winthrop: water quality violation
- 4/16/09 - VeraSun, Janesville: air quality violation
- 5/19/09 - ADM Corn Processing, Marshall: water and air quality violation
- 9/17/09 - Otter Tail Ag Enterprise, Fergus Falls: water quality violation
- 11/12/09 - Minnesota Energy, Buffalo Lake: air and water violations ($1,150,000 penalty)
- 10/29/09 Bushmills Ethanol, Atwater: ($425,000 penalty)
Many of Minnesota's plants are run by farmer coops.
Mike Jerke, general manager of Chippewa Valley Ethanol in west central Minnesota near Benson, said each plant is unique. There can be a steep learning curve for the people who operate them, he said.
"Each company is its own entity, creating jobs typically in a local community, training folks up into the industry and best practices and so forth, and there's an education process that everyone goes through," Jerke said.
Jerke's plant, one of the state's oldest, is facing an enforcement action. He plans to issue a statement about it later this week.
Industry representatives complain that the permitting process takes too long. It can take a year and a half to get a permit just to expand a plant. The pollution control agency said delays occur when the agency waits for weeks or months for answers to its questions from the companies.
In one instance, a plant near Atwater in west central Minnesota applied for permission to increase production, and before the state responded to the request, the plant boosted its output before receiving approval. That went on for a year.
The agency needs more staff, but doesn't have the money for it, Connell said. To handle its caseload, the agency is reassigning workers to concentrate more on ethanol plants.
Connell and his staff met with ethanol producers last month to talk about how to work better.
A possible solution is a self-audit in which inspectors would point out problems at a plant, but not issue any fines.
Broberg said that approach would amount to nothing more than "coddling" the industry.
MPCA staffers deliver a report on the ethanol compliance problem tomorrow to the Citizens Board.