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Nancy Gaarder

A pioneering corn-processing plant in Blair will pay $120,000 in fines and other charges to settle a lawsuit that had accused the plant of violating state and federal environmental laws by relying on inadequate pollution controls.

NatureWorks, a subsidiary of Cargill, is a world leader in the use of corn-based plastic and fiber to make bottles, bags, textiles and other products.

The Blair plant, which was built at a cost of about $300 million and began operations in 2001, was the first of its kind.

When the plant was built, the company and governmental regulators believed it would release less air pollution than actually has occurred, said Bill Brady, spokesman for Cargill.

"When it came to real life, it didn't come out quite the way everyone expected," Brady said. "So we notified regulators."

Air testing by Cargill has made it obvious that the plant's emissions were high enough to trigger federal and state requirements that stricter air controls be installed, Brady said.

Over the next 14 months, Cargill will spend millions of dollars installing scrubbers to remove pollutants from the air, he said.

According to the lawsuit brought by state environmental officials, the plant emits "volatile organic compounds," a class of compounds that vaporize quickly.

The suit also said the plant emits hazardous air pollutants, which the Environmental Protection Agency defines as pollutants known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects. Among the pollutants emitted by the plant are acetaldehyde and methyl-ethyl ketone.

Holly Hatt, spokeswoman for Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, declined to comment beyond acknowledging that the plant had exceeded emission limits contained in the original air quality permit.

As a result of the settlement with the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and the Attorney General's Office, NatureWorks agreed to pay a $60,000 fine and donate $60,000 to a greenhouse project at Blair High School.

Cargill did not admit fault.

The deal allows NatureWorks to continue operating the plant if it falls behind schedule in installing the anti-pollution equipment.

It allows the state to extend the installation deadline and sets a maximum penalty of $2,000 a day if NatureWorks violates the terms of the settlement.Omaha World-Herald