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
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
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
"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
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
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 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
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."
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