Ethanol byproduct proves not to be so eco-friendly

Columbus – As more ethanol producing plants pop up on Ohio’s
landscape, so too is one particular byproduct that has already made
an impact on the state’s wildlife.

DNR Division of Wildlife law enforcement authorities have
investigated at least two stream pollution events this fall that
they believe were the result of runoff containing an ethanol
derivative.

They represent the first such stream pollution investigations of
their kind in a state that just began producing ethanol this year,
said Ken Fitz, a law enforcement administrator with the
division.

“This is something new that’s popping up and when it does pop up
it’s really devastating,” to a stream, said Fitz.

One of the pollution events, in a stream in Licking County,
killed more than 49,000 “wild animals,” according to the Division
of Wildlife report. Those were mostly fish, including smallmouth
bass, bullheads, channel catfish, carp, sunfish, crayfish, a frog
and a hellgrammite.

What wildlife investigators believe occurred is that a landowner
applied a fertilizer mixture on a field that included byproduct
from an ethanol facility. Rainfall washed the mixture into the
creek, turning it into a septic mix devoid of life sustaining
oxygen.

“It looks like melted cheese or pale yellow mustard in the
water,” Fitz said. “But, then after a couple of days it all turns
septic and it’s degrading so rapidly that it just turns (a stream)
black.”

The Division of Wildlife, Fitz said, will seek civil restitution
for the fish kill from the applicator but is not publicly naming
the individual or individuals until the Ohio Environmental
Protection Agency completes its investigation.

The state’s first ethanol plant opened in January in Leipsic in
northwest Ohio. But, since then there’s been a veritable building
boom with five more coming on line and another opening within
weeks, said Laurie Stevenson, chief of the Ohio EPA’s office of
compliance assistance and pollution prevention. Twelve more have
submitted applications and are somewhere in the permit review
process.

One of the byproducts of ethanol is dry grain, which can be
safely used by livestock producers for feed. It is the wet
byproducts – essentially a corn syrup – that is more problematic
and the suspected source of the stream pollution events.

“The main outlet for the dry grain and the wet grain is strictly
for livestock feed,” Stevenson said.

What is not permitted as of now is use of the byproducts in land
applications, according to Stevenson, although that might be
occurring nonetheless.

“Some situations that we have encountered have brought to light
the question of whether or not there’s the potential for this
material to be land applied,” she said. “We are looking at that
very closely.”

It is unclear within the EPA at this point, Stevenson said,
whether land application is a practical and responsible method for
using ethanol byproduct.

“We need to seriously look at the agronomic benefit of any kind
of land application,” she said. “It’s a scenario that’s fairly new
to us so we are more in the mode of evaluation at this point.”

Though the ethanol surge has cooled in recent months and
Stevenson doesn’t expect all 12 of the new applicants to end up as
producers, enough of a push remains for the gasoline additive that
wildlife authorities expect to handle more of these cases.

“I think we’ll be dealing with it more just because it’s a
rapidly growing industry,” Fitz said. “Obviously, the Division of
Wildlife is supportive of renewable energy. But, we have to be
careful that these byproducts are being handled properly.”

Ethanol byproducts are hardly alone in creating problems for
streams, but it is the newest dilemma facing wildlife authorities,
Fitz said. Dairy products are equally as lethal when inadvertently
spilled into a stream.

“Milk or whey, when it gets into a stream because it spoils so
fast it’s really deadly,” he said. “The stuff that breaks down
really fast is deadly because it just soaks up all of the
oxygen.”

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