Corn Plus agrees to fines, probation for emissions violations

By Kris Bevill | November 29, 2011

Winnebago, Minn.,-based Corn Plus LLLP, a farmer-owned cooperative which owns and operates a 49 MMgy corn ethanol plant, pleaded guilty on Nov. 23 to charges that it violated the Clean Air Act by delivering falsified emissions reports to the U.S. EPA earlier this year and on multiple occasions in 2010. As a result of its violations, the company was sentenced in federal court to a $450,000 fine and three years of probation.

According to a plea agreement reached between the company and the state’s attorney, Corn Plus employees certified in a Jan. 27 report to the EPA that the company had not deviated from CAA operating parameters in 2010 when, in fact, those employees knew that air pressure drop readings from the baghouses—equipment designed to prevent particulate matter from entering the atmosphere—were out of compliance on multiple occasions during that timeframe. The company also admitted that similar false reports had been submitted to the EPA in 2009 and 2010.

In a statement released shortly after the charges were filed in late September, Corn Plus said it had launched an internal investigation immediately upon learning of the record-keeping issues and had fired the employees responsible for falsifying documents. While the company said in the plea agreement that its baghouses were out of compliance on several occasions, its earlier internal investigation found that the facility never exceeded its allowable emissions and did not pollute the environment.

Regardless of actual emissions violations, the sentencing handed to Corn Plus proves that accurate record keeping can be just as critical as the equipment. “The Clean Air Act is designed to protect the air we all breathe,” said Randall Ashe, special agent in charge of the EPA’s criminal enforcement program in Minnesota. “To assure compliance, governments need complete and accurate reports. Violators who submit false information undermine our efforts to protect the public and the environment. [Corn Plus’s] guilty plea shows that if a business chooses to ignore these critical safeguards, it can expect to pay a substantial price.”

Corn Plus was already serving a three-year probation sentence as a result of charges in 2009 that it discharged wastewater into a nearby lake. In the plea agreement reached on Nov. 23, the parties recommended that the previous probation sentence be terminated, stating that the probation sentence for the latest violation serves the same purpose. As part of Corn Plus’s new three-year probation sentence, the company must maintain an internal tracking program to ensure compliance with emissions testing deadlines and requirements in addition to training and testing all employees on the company’s CAA obligations.