The environmental effects of ethanol production plants: citizen responses
In the wake of the current ethanol boom, many agro-fuel supporters have argued that their environmental benefits make them an environmentally viable alternative to imported oil. The proponents of agro-fuels often argue that increased usage of ethanol will reduce greenhouse gases and help fight global warming. However, a more detailed examination of agro-fuels reveals some disturbing environmental effects. The roughly 200 ethanol refineries in operation in the United States are guilty of emitting thousands of tons of pollution every year, including nitrogen oxide, one of the key elements of smog. According to a study by Professor Mark Jacobson at Stanford University, over 200 people will die each year from respiratory problems related to ozone, the unseen component of smog, if all vehicles in the U.S. run on an ethanol blend by 2020. Although the chances of all vehicles running on an ethanol blend by 2020 are currently remote, the study illustrated the dangerous health consequences of ethanol’s usage as a gasoline fuel.
Also, given the vast quantities of ethanol transported between processing plants and gas stations, accidents are likely to occur. In early July, a train carrying ethanol derailed spilling over 30,000 gallons of ethanol onto a hillside in Plumas County, MN. Although, in this particular accident, a retaining wall above the highway prevented the spillage from entering the nearby river, other ethanol related accidents may have far more damaging environmental consequences.
Response of local residents
There is also concern that residential communities close to ethanol plants may also suffer from respiratory problems. When ethanol giant POET started construction of a plant in Portland, IN, area residents mounted an unsuccessful effort to block construction of the refinery. Area residents were not able to put a halt to the ethanol plant construction nor were they able to sell their property.
worst affected by ethanol plant pollution
In addition to POET’s plant construction in Indiana, there are many other cases where ethanol plants have managed to over-ride the concerns of local communities. A case in point is a proposed ethanol plant in New Mexico. A number of civil society organizations have appealed a state agency’s approval of an air quality permit for the plant (partly financed by the ConAgra trade group). Civil society groups argued that the plant’s location is too close to mostly Hispanic and black neighborhoods, thus subjecting predominately minority communities to pollution hazards.
However, there are a number of cases where local residents have successfully managed to stall ethanol plant developments. E85 Inc backed out of a planned ethanol plant in Fayetteville, NC after local residents and Cumberland county officials joined hands in vocal opposition. Similarly, California-based Cilion Corp was forced to delay the construction of a plant in Caledonia after area residents expressed concerns about groundwater protection, deteriorating air quality and the visual impact of the large ethanol plant.
Similarly, in Greene Township, PA, citizens opposed to an $80 million ethanol plant managing to halt the plants construction. As a result of the vocal opposition, supervisors of the town were forced to amend the township zoning and solid waste ordinances. According to Frederic Antoun, the attorney for Citizens for a Quality Environment, the ethanol controversy was good for the township because people were forced to consider the environmental consequences that increased ethanol-based investment would bring to the area.
EPA relaxes regulations
The worst fears of many local communities that live around ethanol plants were confirmed in April of this year when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) relaxed pollution standards for ethanol plants. The changed policy allows ethanol plants to increase the threshold for installing the best air pollution control equipment from 100 tons of pollution to 250 tons. This would mean that ethanol plants emit greater amounts of pollution before coming under tougher restrictions. Many state-level and local pollution officials have opposed the change as it would make their tasks more difficult in controlling pollution from ethanol plants. The expected pollution increases from the plants are likely to worsen fears of long-term health hazards.
The ethanol boom is likely to lead to increased smog and deterioration in air quality. Encouragingly, citizen activism in the form of residents protesting the increased construction of ethanol plants is on the rise. In some cases, plant construction has been halted. As noted above, in Greene Township, after vocal protests by local residents, the township was forced to re-evaluate the environmental consequences of the proposed plant. Also, the pollution hazards from ethanol plants are likely to disproportionately affect minorities. With over 86 more ethanol plants under construction nationwide, citizen activism is necessary to ensure that ethanol producers are held accountable for the environmental effects of ethanol plants.