NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


March 13, 2008

Residents of a subdivision in Moundville, Ala., noticed an oily, fetid substance fouling the Black Warrior River.  The source turned out to be an old chemical factory that had been converted into Alabama's first biodiesel plant, a refinery that intended to turn soybean oil into earth-friendly fuel.

The oily sheen on the water returned again and again, and a laboratory analysis of a sample taken in March 2007 revealed that the amount of oil and grease being released by the plant -- it resembled Italian salad dressing and was 450 times higher than permit levels typically allow.

The spills are similar to others that have come from biofuel plants in the Midwest.  The discharges, which can be hazardous to birds and fish, have many people scratching their heads over the seeming incongruity of pollution from an industry that sells products with the promise of blue skies and clear streams:

  • Iowa leads the nation in biofuel production, with 42 ethanol and biodiesel refineries in production and 18 more plants under construction, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.
  • In the summer of 2006, a Cargill biodiesel plant in Iowa Falls improperly disposed of 135,000 gallons of liquid oil and grease, which ran into a stream killing hundreds of fish.

According to the National Biodiesel Board, biodiesel is nontoxic, biodegradable and suitable for sensitive environments, but scientists say that position understates its potential environmental impact.

Bruce P. Hollebone, a researcher with Environment Canada in Ottawa says, you can eat the stuff, after all, 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.

Source:  Brenda Goodman, "Pollution is Called a Byproduct of a 'Clean' Fuel," New York Times, March 11, 2008.

For text: 


Browse more articles on Environment Issues