Erosion, pollution: The secret environmental cost of the United States' ethanol policy

By Matt Apuzzo

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 12 2013 3:29 p.m. MST

But the administration never actually conducted the required air and water studies to determine whether that's true.

In an interview with the AP after his speech, Vilsack said he didn't mean that ethanol production was good for the air and water. He simply meant that gasoline mixed with ethanol is cleaner than gasoline alone.

In the Midwest, meanwhile, scientists and conservationists are sounding alarms.

Nitrogen fertilizer, when it seeps into the water, is toxic. Children are especially susceptible to nitrate poisoning, which causes "blue baby" syndrome and can be deadly.

Between 2005 and 2010, corn farmers increased their use of nitrogen fertilizer by more than one billion pounds. More recent data isn't available from the Agriculture Department, but because of the huge increase in corn planting, even conservative projections by the AP suggest another billion-pound fertilizer increase on corn farms since then.

Department of Agriculture officials note that the amount of fertilizer used for all crops has remained steady for a decade, suggesting the ethanol mandate hasn't caused a fertilizer boom across the board.

But in the Midwest, corn is the dominant crop, and officials say the increase in fertilizer use — driven by the increase in corn planting — is having an effect.

The Des Moines Water Works, for instance, has faced high nitrate levels for many years in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers, which supply drinking water to 500,000 people. Typically, when pollution is too high in one river, workers draw from the other.

"This year, unfortunately the nitrate levels in both rivers were so high that it created an impossibility for us," said Bill Stowe, the water service's general manager.

For three months this summer, workers kept huge machines running around the clock to clean the water. Officials asked customers to use less water so the utility had a chance to keep up.

Part of the problem was that last year's dry weather meant fertilizer sat atop the soil. This spring's rains flushed that nitrogen into the water along with the remnants of the fertilizer from the most recent crop.

At the same time the ethanol mandate has encouraged farmers to plant more corn, Stowe said, the government hasn't done enough to limit fertilizer use or regulate the industrial drainage systems that flush nitrates and water into rivers and streams.

With the Water Works on the brink of capacity, Stowe said he's considering suing the government to demand a solution.

In neighboring Minnesota, a government report this year found that significantly reducing the high levels of nitrates from the state's water would require huge changes in farming practices at a cost of roughly $1 billion a year.

"We're doing more to address water quality, but we are being overwhelmed by the increase in production pressure to plant more crops," said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.

The nitrates travel down rivers and into the Gulf of Mexico, where they boost the growth of enormous algae fields. When the algae die, the decomposition consumes oxygen, leaving behind a zone where aquatic life cannot survive.

This year, the dead zone covered 5,800 square miles of sea floor, about the size of Connecticut.

Larry McKinney, the executive director of the Harte Institute at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, says the ethanol mandate worsened the dead zone.

"On the one hand, the government is mandating ethanol use," he said, "and it is unfortunately coming at the expense of the Gulf of Mexico."

The dead zone is one example among many of a peculiar ethanol side effect: As one government program encourages farmers to plant more corn, other programs pay millions to clean up the mess.

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