IMPACT: After years of complaints, EPA steps in at Iowa plant

Federal agency says company skirted air pollution rules for years

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The Grain Processing Corp. plant in Muscatine, Iowa, sits on the edge of the town's South End neighborhood.

Chris Hamby/iWatch News

For years, people living in the Mississippi River town of Muscatine, Iowa, have complained about the ash and smoke blowing into their neighborhood from a corn processing plant. State regulators have brought enforcement cases against the company, but the town’s South End neighborhood remains under a haze.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in, alleging years of violations of air pollution rules at the plant owned by Grain Processing Corp. The letter issued to the company, known as GPC, doesn’t impose penalties, but puts it on notice that the EPA is considering an enforcement case.

GPC spokesman Janet Sichterman said company officials are reviewing the notice and “aren’t in a position to make a comment on it now.”

The action comes as the company is battling the Iowa attorney general, who has alleged separate violations of air and water pollution rules in a lawsuit. A group of citizens, calling themselves Clean Air Muscatine, has filed a petition to intervene in that case, saying the state’s previous actions against GPC have failed to protect people living near the facility.

The plant, which processes corn into ethanol, beverage alcohol and corn syrups and starches, was highlighted last year in the Center for Public Integrity series “Poisoned Places.” In 2010, the facility released more lead — a toxic metal that can damage the nervous system — than any plant in the state and more acetaldehyde — a probable carcinogen — than almost any plant in the country, state and federal data show.

The EPA’s notice of violation contains few details, but it alleges that, between 2007 and 2011, GPC repeatedly violated air pollution limits and failed to report many excess pollution episodes as its permit required.

EPA regional officials refused to discuss specifics of the alleged violations, but the Center reported last year on GPC’s handling of “excess emissions.” When companies release more pollution than their permit allows, they are supposed to call state regulators, then file a written report. Companies can avoid this reporting requirement, however, under certain circumstances.

As far back as 2008, a state inspector began raising concerns about the company’s use of reporting requirement exemptions. Over time, he uncovered evidence indicating that GPC was misusing exemptions to avoid reporting constant violations, state reports and correspondence show. He brought the information to his bosses at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, but they haven’t pursued an enforcement case.

The EPA would not confirm that this issue is the subject of the violation notice, but a spokesman said the violations did involve excess pollution episodes that the company never reported. GPC’s Sichterman previously told the Center the company had stopped using some exemptions and had better trained its workers to avoid exceeding pollution limits.

GPC now must respond to the EPA’s notice, which also included written questions related to water pollution. Then, the agency will decide from among its options, which include settling with the company, filing an administrative enforcement case or referring the issue to the Justice Department. “Part of that can hinge on whether the company acknowledges that they are violations or whether they would want to challenge them,” EPA spokesman Chris Whitley said.

The notice says the EPA could seek penalties of up to $37,500 for each day the company was in violation.

GPC also faces potential penalties from a lawsuit filed by the Iowa attorney general that accuses the company of releasing more pollution than allowed from one of its dryers, which is used to cook corn.

The EPA’s allegations relate to different equipment: the company’s six coal-fired boilers, which release ash and gases through one tall smokestack. Residents have long complained about the ash; they point to it covering their cars and homes and worry about its effects on their health.

GPC has announced a $100 million project that will upgrade portions of the plant and improve pollution control, but state regulators have said the improvements may not go far enough to prevent the area from being classified by the EPA as in violation of air quality standards designed to protect public health.