Thursday, May 01, 2008

Impact of ethanol production in Champaign on Upper Kaskaskia and Mahomet Aquifer

Impact of ethanol production in Champaign on Upper Kaskaskia and Mahomet Aquifer

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Correction: This evening's meeting will take place in Building D (south side of campus), Room D244, Parkland College in Champaign.

Next Monday evening, May 5th, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency will conduct a public hearing regarding a proposed permit for the discharge of wastewater by the new ethanol plant under development in northwest Champaign. It is fortunate that, thanks to the federal Clean Water Act, the public has the opportunity to weigh in on this matter, since the discharge from the plant will enter the Upper Kaskaskia, and so impact a river that stretches 320 miles, from Champaign to the Mississippi.

For now, the land adjoining the Kaskaskia just west of Champaign is still producing corn and soybeans, but there is less than a mile between the stream and the nearest newly constructed houses. If the developers’ signs that recently went up near Rising Road are an indicator, it won’t be long before backyards or businesses replace farming there, bringing people into contact with the water.

The discharge from the Andersons ethanol plant will affect the Kaskaskia in three important ways. First, it will increase stream flow significantly, by about 720,000 gallons a day. (That means during the three months of the year stream flow is lowest, effluent from the plant will account for more than half of the stream.) Second, it will introduce a number of contaminants to the stream, including arsenic, boron, chlorides, iron, manganese, sulfates, and suspended solids. Third, it will raise the temperature of the stream, since it will be discharged from the plant at about 90° F. That’s especially a concern in summer, when low flows and nutrient pollution already combine to promote excess algae growth, resulting in degraded conditions for fish and other aquatic life.

Now, while it’s important that people work to safeguard the public interest as Illinois EPA develops wastewater discharge permits for ethanol plants, it’s even more important that we support the development of public policy concerning how water resources are allocated.

Currently in Illinois, there are no disincentives to using enormous quantities of water in ethanol production. Nationwide, the industry standard is moving downward, toward about three gallons of water per gallon of fuel produced, but it is anticipated that the plant in northwest Champaign will use more like six gallons of water per gallon of ethanol. That will mean pumping about 2 million gallons a day from the Mahomet Aquifer, some of the highest quality water on earth. That’s an increase of nearly 10% over the total amount currently used by Champaign, Urbana, and nearby communities combined.

While the aquifer can likely accommodate this particular additional use, the day is coming when the demand for water will outstrip supply in east central Illinois, as it has already in so many other places around the country and the world. And even before then, it’s quite possible that increased pumping could degrade the aquifer in other ways, by making it vulnerable to contamination with surface water pollutants, or mobilizing naturally occurring arsenic within it.

We owe it to future generations to develop state policy on water use before more serious conflicts arise. And, to return to my earlier point, we owe it to ourselves to participate in the public process EPA conducts as it develops wastewater discharge permits.

You can take part in the public hearing on the discharge permit for the Andersons ethanol plant on Monday, May 5th, at 6:00 p.m. in Building D (south side of campus), Room D244, Parkland College in Champaign.