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Corn Plus pleads guilty

By Staff | Aug 24, 2009

Corn Plus in Winnebago has agreed to pay a $100,000 fine following a two-year federal investigation.

Company officials pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court to violating the Clean Water Act before federal Judge Jeanne Graham.

Corn Plus was charged Aug. 3 after an investigation by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency determined the company had been discharging wastewater into a ditch leading to Rice Lake.

The discharges, which contained the pollutant biological oxygen, occurred from 2005 through Aug. 10, 2007.

The wastewater reportedly entered a drain on the company’s property and emptied into the lake.

A nearby landowner, who did not want to be identified, says he doesn’t like to see any company being fined, but they also must abide by the law and be held accountable.

“It’s been going on for some time. I just wished they would have cleaned up their act before it got to this point,” says the landowner.

Plant manager Keith Kor declined comment on the settlement and referred any questions to company attorneys.

Under a plea agreement, the ethanol producer will pay a $100,000 fine and make a $50,000 contribution to an environmental project benefitting Rice Lake and the local community.

As part of the settlement, Corn Plus also will enhance its environmental compliance plan.According to a new release from the law firm of Fredrikson & Byron, the ethanol producer has brought its operation into full compliance with environmental regulation.

“The company corrected the conditions that resulted in the discharge well over a year ago,” says John Lundquist, a Corn Plus attorney.

On Aug. 10, 2007, the Faribault County Sheriff’s Department and the MPCA executed a search warrant at the plant.

Court records show several water, fecal, metal and bacteria samples were collected.

At that time, Lee Ganske of the Mankato MPCA office said an investigation was started after receiving complaints from landowners about grayish, murky-colored water in a ditch near the plant.

A search warrant application said the ditch had visible milky and odorous discharges of wastewater between October 2006 and June 2007.

Corn Plus Dulce Foster says a federal judge will determine what the sentence will be at a future date.

“I expect it will be a couple of months, at least, before sentencing occurs. The judge will have the final say,” Foster says.

Corn Plus faces a potential maximum penalty of five years probation and a $200,000 fine.

“The company admitted it failed to exercise due and reasonable care to prevent wastewater from entering the lake,” says the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

While this concludes the federal criminal case, a MPCA official says the state Attorney General’s Office is conducting its own investigation.

“The fact that it’s in the civil process now doesn’t preclude it from becoming a criminal case,” says Ralph Pribble of the MPCA’s ethanol control division.