Farmers see ethanol as MTBE alternative

Trade group plans study on feasibility of Md. plant

September 12, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Maryland grain farmers feel confident that they have the solution to the gasoline leaks that have contaminated the drinking water in Harford County and other parts of the state with a potentially cancer-causing chemical called MTBE.

"Ethanol," said Robert Hutchison, who farms about 3,000 acres near Cordova in Talbot County. "It will totally eliminate the MTBE problem."

Hutchison is one of the organizers of a group of farmers who want to build an ethanol production plant in the state.

Ethanol - which can be made from grains including corn, wheat, oats and barley - is the fuel additive of choice among the 18 states that have responded to water contamination and moved to eliminate or limit sales of gasoline containing the additive methyl tertiary butyl ether, or MTBE.

MTBE has been added to gas to help it burn more cleanly since 1979, but its use was vastly increased in the early 1990s to curb air pollution in smoggy areas such as Baltimore. It dissolves easily in water, and has contaminated groundwater in many states where MTBE-treated gas is sold.

MTBE has caused cancer in rats that ingested large amounts, but the health effects on people drinking relatively minute amounts is unknown. Even at low levels, however, it imparts an unpleasant taste and odor in water.

"It doesn't make sense to use MTBE when we can make ethanol right here," said Hutchison.

According to the Renewable Fuels Association, a Washington-based association of ethanol producers, ethanol is nearly 35 percent oxygen and, like MTBE, reduces tailpipe emissions by promoting cleaner burning of gasoline. Moreover, the group says in a fact sheet: "Ethanol is non-toxic, water soluble and quickly biodegradable."

Hutchison and other grain farmers around the state are hopeful public demands to ban MTBE from gasoline sold in Maryland will be a new impetus to their plan to build an ethanol production plant in the state.

"If we start on it tomorrow, we can have it up and running in two years," he said.

Grain farmers have been considering a plant in the state for about three years. The efforts shifted into a higher gear this year after New York and Connecticut eliminated MTBE from gasoline in favor of ethanol.

Tests of the wells of 169 homes in the Upper Crossroads section of Harford County have revealed contamination by MTBE, the source of which the state is investigating. The state is also investigating MTBE contamination in the Aberdeen public water supply, as well as in the wells in the Hillcrest Avenue neighborhood just east of Hampstead in Carroll County.

Del. Joanne S. Parrott, a Harford County Republican, said she would introduce a bill in the next General Assembly session to ban MTBE from gasoline.

Del. Barry Glassman, chairman of the Harford County legislative delegation, said he would draft a resolution calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to prohibit the use of MTBE.

"If and when Maryland bans MTBE, it would be wonderful for our project," said Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association.

Hoot said the grain farmers are considering a facility smaller than most of the more than 80 ethanol plants across the country. "We're looking at a $30 million plant that would produce 15 million gallons of ethanol a year," she said.

Hoot said a site for the plant has not been determined, but would probably be near the center of the Eastern Shore. "That's the biggest barley-growing region of the state," she said.

The ethanol would be made from barley rather than corn, she said, because the Eastern Shore poultry industry uses more corn as feed than state farmers can grow.

Hoot said the association is working with the University of Maryland, Virginia Tech and the U.S. Department of Agriculture on research to make ethanol from a new variety of hull-less barley that research shows yields 2.3 gallons to 2.4 gallons of ethanol from each bushel - considerably more than traditional barley and close to the level from corn.

"We think it is a terrific idea," said Earl "Buddy" Hance, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, a trade association representing 19,000 farm families.

"Ethanol is good for agriculture," he said. "Ethanol is good for the environment. This would be a win-win situation in Maryland."

The Farm Bureau has contributed $25,000 to help pay for a feasibility study on building a plant in the state.

Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley said Delaware and Pennsylvania also are looking at the possibility of building ethanol plants.

"It could be the beginning of a new industry in Maryland," said Hoot. "It wouldn't be very big in the beginning, but it has a great potential to grow."

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