A dozen ethanol plants in Minnesota, including the one near Little Falls, are negotiating with pollution control regulators to settle alleged violations of the Clean Air Act, according to regulators and industry officials.
People living near some of the plants have complained about odors, headaches and nausea, as well as irritated eyes, throats and skin. Ethanol, which is added to gasoline to increase oxygen in the fuel and make it burn cleaner, is made by cooking corn and sometimes other plant materials.
Recent tests have revealed that ethanol plants emit more pollutants than earlier believed, including carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds thought to cause cancer and other illnesses.
Twelve of the 14 ethanol plants operating in Minnesota are under scrutiny by state and federal pollution-control officials. Those 12 plants use a dry process. Here's a list of the cities in Minnesota where ethanol plants are located:
Dry process plants:
* Little Falls
* Buffalo Lake
* St. Paul
* Bingham Lake
* Albert Lea
Wet Process plants:
(Source: Minnesota Department of Agriculture)
Negotiation details between pollution control regulators and ethanol plants, including the Central Minnesota Ethanol Cooperative near Little Falls, were not available.
"We really cannot comment on this right now," Kerry Nixon, Central Minnesota Ethanol Cooperative general manager, said today. "We are still in the negotiations stage."
Nixon said he expects an announcement in about two weeks. Construction on the ethanol plant near Little Falls began in 1995. The facility began production in March 1999.
Jim Warner, quality director at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, would not give details about the discussions between the plants and regulators. But he said, "Any time we're talking enforcement, we're potentially talking about penalties."
Neither Warner nor ethanol industry officials would discuss individual plants, or whether some of them emit more pollutants than others. Warner said MPCA files on the plants are temporarily closed pending enforcement actions.
Minnesota Corn Processing in Marshall and Melrose Dairy Protein LLCs in Melrose -- which use a different process, called a "wet mill" process, to make ethanol -- are not included in the negotiations.
Warner said the MPCA has estimated that each of the 12 plants produces more than 100 tons per year of volatile organic compounds such as formaldehyde. That would subject the plants to stricter air pollution regulations than they had faced.
In the past, companies tested only for ethanol and methanol emissions. Under stricter regulation, plant operators would need to install better pollution-control technology in existing and future plants.
Rita Messing, environmental toxicologist for the Minnesota Health Department, said officials began taking a closer look at ethanol emissions after hearing complaints from residents living near the Gopher State Ethanol plant in St. Paul, which began operating in April 2000.
After conducting more elaborate tests at Gopher in 2000, state health officials identified several other pollutants: acetaldehyde and formaldehyde, potential carcinogens, and acrolein, which is toxic to the upper respiratory system in animal studies.
Messing said the levels of these chemicals have been lower since Gopher installed $1.2 million of pollution control equipment last year. Although people living near the plant are not thought to be at higher risk for cancer, there is uncertainty about long-term health effects because scientists do not know how combinations of the chemicals affect humans, Messing said.
Another uncertainty is whether other ethanol-plant emissions such as lactic acid and furfural pose long-term health risks, she added. For many chemicals, "we don't have the criteria where we can say there's a safe level," she said.
After receiving the Minnesota results, EPA spokesman Bill Omohundro said, federal officials tested four other ethanol plants in the Upper Midwest and found similar emissions.
In April, the EPA's Chicago office sent a letter to state regulators and ethanol producers -- including Minnesota plants -- about the tests. The letter reported emissions "many times greater" than companies had indicated and declared that most if not all ethanol facilities "were not properly permitted and controlled with respect to a number of pollutants." It summoned plant managers to a Chicago meeting, which took place June 3.
At that meeting, EPA officials made it clear that companies would need to install better pollution-control technology, Omohundro said.
"We told them it was not a voluntary initiative," he said.
Federal officials have been tightlipped about those talks.
"We're in settlement negotiations so I can't comment on anything," said Cynthia King, an attorney in the EPA office in Chicago.
Ralph Groschen, an ethanol specialist at the Minnesota Agriculture Department, said some ethanol producers are frustrated that they may be forced to pay penalties for violations that they knew nothing about until the new testing took place.
"If you were in violation and if you and the government didn't know about it, the law says you still could be penalized," he said.
Requiring expensive pollution-control equipment will be a hardship for some of the companies, he said, but the future of the ethanol industry still looks "pretty darned good" because of demand.
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