In their haste to save the environment, “green” fuel enthusiasts are turning public waterways brown as some companies eager to get processing plants up and running quickly are failing to honor the conditions of their environmental permits.
"What is being sold as green fuel just doesn't pencil out," California Representative Brian Bilbray, who spoke out against the $18 billion energy package recently passed by Congress that provides tax credits for biofuels, told the International Herald Tribune.
According the National Biodiesel Board, biodiesel is nontoxic, biodegradable and suitable for sensitive environments, even sensitive riparian ones. But scientists — and people living near biodiesel refineries — say that’s seriously understating its potential environmental impact.
Some biodiesel plants are discharging glycerin, which is normally non-toxic and the principal biodiesel byproduct, into rivers and streams.
"You can eat the stuff, after all," says Environment Canada researcher Bruce Hollebone, one of the world's leading experts on the environmental impact of vegetable oil and glycerin spills.
"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."
Because the burgeoning biodiesel industry — which has mushroomed to 160 plants from 90 in just a year — is flooding the market with so much excess glycerin that it’s become far less costly to dump it than to perform the expensive and complicated cleaning necessary to resell the material for secondary uses.
Even worse, much of the biodiesel glycerin byproduct is contaminated with methanol, a substance classified as clearly hazardous.
After residents of an Alabama subdivision observed a foul-smelling oily substance in a river that flows near their homes, retired petroleum worker and subdivision resident Mark Storey began searching for the source.
He discovered it was Alabama Biodiesel Corporation plant, the state’s first biodiesel refinery.
“I was really amazed that a plant like that would produce anything that could get into the river without taking the necessary precautions," Storey says.
A laboratory analysis showed contaminants released by the plant were 450 times higher than permit levels typically allow.
Though the Alabama Department of Environmental Management told the company it needed an individual pollution discharge permit, the firm never applied for one, operating for more than a year without a permit — and without facing any penalties from state regulators who documented unpermitted discharges on two occasions.
The Alabama spills are mirrored at biofuel plants in the Midwest, leading many to wonder why an industry that promises bluer skies and clearer streams is actually polluting both.
After a tanker truck dumping glycerin from a biodiesel plant into Missouri’s Belle Fountain Ditch, 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.
"Ironic, isn't it?" comments 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."
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