Ethanol plant fined for ongoing excessive air pollution

By: - September 2, 2022 5:20 pm

Southeast Iowa Renewable Energy in Council Bluffs, Iowa, is shown here ahead of a visit from then President Donald Trump in 2019. The ethanol plant has been fined $10,000 for excessive air pollution. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

A southwest Iowa ethanol plant has been ordered to pay a $10,000 fine for its repeated air emissions of excessive, cancer-causing compounds in the past five years, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy is located just south of Council Bluffs in an industrial area along Interstate Highway 29. The company has failed to properly maintain its air pollution control equipment — either by not replacing malfunctioning parts or by not cleaning the equipment — which has led to numerous excessive emissions, a recent DNR administrative order said. The company has also failed to report those emissions to the DNR in a timely manner.

Specifically, the ethanol plant has released too much formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and acrolein that are byproducts of its fermentation process and “are known to cause adverse health effects,” the order said. Some of the violations are ongoing.

“Actual harm to the environment and public health may have occurred due to the amount of pollutants that were and are being emitted,” the order said.

Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy, known as SIRE, began producing ethanol from corn in 2009, according to a company press release, and makes more than 130 million gallons annually. Its chief executive, Mike Jerke, declined to comment on the DNR’s findings but said the company is working to rectify deficiencies.

“We’re clearly focused on being compliant,” Jerke said.

It also sells dried distillers grains — made from the leftovers of fermentation — that are often used for livestock feed. The ongoing excessive emissions are from that drying process, the DNR order said.

Ethanol production is an important market for Iowa’s corn because more than half of the state’s crop is used for it. The fuel has been billed as a cleaner-burning alternative to gasoline.

Many ethanol plants in Iowa are poised to capture their carbon dioxide emissions for out-of-state sequestration if state regulators approve proposed liquid carbon pipelines. One of those pipelines that would be built by Summit Carbon Solutions would pass through Pottawattamie County but isn’t planned to connect to SIRE, said Courtney Ryan, a Summit spokesperson.

As part of the DNR’s recent administrative order, SIRE must submit a plan to bring its emissions into compliance and increase its reporting of emissions tests to the state, among other requirements. The $10,000 fine is the maximum the DNR can impose.

This story was first published by Iowa Capital Dispatch, a sister publication of Nebraska Examiner in the States Newsroom  network.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.