(CNSNews.com) - Call it green pollution. The ethanol industry, which is marketed as environmentally friendly and has been called a "cornerstone of America's energy policy," is dirtying air and water supplies across the heartland, according to a Cybercast News Service investigation.
And industry watchers said pollution is going to get worse.
"There seems to be this mad rush toward expansion of the alternative fuels industry without sufficient due diligence," said Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies (NACAA).
The Renewable Fuels Association, a major industry lobbying group, lists 119 working ethanol refineries in the United States, with another 77 refineries being built as of June 1.
Federal and state environmental agencies are responsible for monitoring the plants and making sure they follow local and national clean air and water guidelines. Those agencies have been busy.
A Cybercast News Service analysis of EPA records found 73 biorefineries - more than 60 percent of those operating - were cited by state or federal agencies for environmental violations in the last three years. The vast majority involve state or federal clean air laws.
"They've brought the enforcement actions against a number of ethanol companies and refineries for essentially sidestepping the law," said Frank O'Donnell, president of the non-partisan Clean Air Watch. "Ethanol refineries have the potential to pollute quite a bit."
Most of the companies have not been fined by state or federal government agencies, though some of the biggest ownership groups have been forced to pay millions for cleanup and anti-pollution devices.
"Ethanol has been dramatically oversold as a green energy source," said O'Donnell.
Fordland, Mo., bed and breakfast owner Larry Alberty agreed. He and his rural neighbors are fighting a proposed ethanol plant in nearby Rogersville.
They fear the plant's proposed 12-acre wastewater holding pond will seep into groundwater - the plant will be built on top of a major aquifer - and that the project will harm tourism in the area with its smokestacks and noise.
"Eleven million people visit this area [each year]," Alberty said. "People aren't going to want to come to the bed and breakfast and hear the noise and the light pollution ... it has an impact there and we're very concerned about it."
Becker predicted that these "not in my backyard" (NIMBY) battles will happen more frequently as the industry rushes to expand capacity.
Most ethanol plants are built in rural areas and are sold as major job-producing engines, but Becker said the tons of pollution the plants churn out will have a major impact on the heartland's air quality and, consequently, the area's quality of life.
"It's very important that the rural areas, the clean areas grow judiciously and allow industrial growth in such a way that it doesn't kick the air quality into a dirty area," he said. Failure to do so could cause all industries in the area to install pollution controls, make drivers go through emissions tests for vehicles, and make it more difficult for future development, he argued.
The pro-ethanol lobby said there is substantial support for expanding the industry.
"For every NIMBY group and every project that runs into opposition from the community, you're seeing half a dozen communities that want an ethanol plant," said Geoff Cooper of the National Corn Growers Association.
Cooper said Cybercast News Service's analysis is not surprising, but he said things are getting better.
"Some of the older plants that have been around for a decade or longer were built at a time when the regulatory regime for these types of facilities wasn't completely ironed out," he explained. "Some of those older plants are having to do some things to get up to code."
Cooper said any problems with pollution are offset by the environmental benefits of renewable fuels being used in U.S. vehicles.
"When you look at the carbon footprint and ethanol's ability to reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the industry's track record speaks for itself," he said.
Cooper also noted that many powerful environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, are strongly in favor of ethanol.
"Where you're seeing most of the opposition in terms of air quality is the fringe groups," he said.
But Becker, who represents a group of state and local environmental regulatory agencies, said the ethanol industry's green credentials have been blackened. At one time, those agencies viewed the renewable fuels industry as a natural ally in environmental protection - but not anymore.
"I don't think they would qualify as green today," said Becker.
Incentives for ethanol production and distribution are a significant part of the Senate's omnibus energy bill being debated this week.
Repeated requests for comment from one of the most powerful pro-ethanol lobbying groups, the Renewable Fuel Association, went unreturned, as did requests for comment from Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) - both of whom have been outspoken advocates for ethanol. Aides for Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) reviewed the Cybercast News Service analysis and declined to comment.
Cybercast News Service Correspondent Katherine Poythress contributed to this article.
See Related Story:
Ethanol Industry, Congress Accused of Bending Rules (June 13, 2007)
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