ATLANTIC — Friday was a big day for ethanol producers in Cass County.

On the same day the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that it would allow the year-round sale of E15, hundreds also turned out to celebrate the grand opening of Elite Octane in Atlantic including guest speakers U.S. Senator Joni Ernst, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds and other dignitaries.

President and CEO of Elite Octane Nick Bowdish thanked the both local, state and federal officials that made — what was once an on-again, off-again project — possible and currently producing around 150 million gallons of ethanol a year from about 50 million bushels of corn while employing 53 people with an annual salary of around $4 million. And it all started with 10 individuals — known as Atlantic Energy — who had the vision, and stamina, to stick with the project from the start.

“The group Atlantic Energy saw what an ethanol plant could do for the rural economy here in Cass County,” Bowdish said. “Guys like Greg Zellmer, Gary Pellett, Randy Euken, Don Sonntag, Chad Comes, Nick Hunt, Bob Camblin and a few others. And while the 2008 recession ultimately paused their plans, it was all their work that they trail-blazed — we are so thankful for your pioneering vision gentlemen.”

Hundreds lined up for food provided by the Cass County Beef Producers and toured the high-tech facility that can be run by as few as four employees and still produce over 400,000 gallons of ethanol a day. The plant has been operational for just under a year and can receive 140-150,000 bushels of corn per day from around 140 trucks a week and every seven days 80 railroad tankers leave the plant full of ethanol heading to refiners.

Bowdish thanked a number of dignitaries and officials who attended including, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, Lieutenant Governor Adam Gregg and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, officials from the EPA, county and city as well as the Sukup family who constructed the two custom-built, high tech bins — each capable of holding 2 million bushels of corn and designed so that employees never have to enter them. Representatives from the Fagen family — who built the plant along with various investors, railroad and other officials were also on hand. But some of his highest praise went to his staff.

“The staff has just done a terrific job,” Bowdish said earlier in the week. “Over 75 percent of our staff had never worked at an ethanol plant prior to joining Elite Octane. So to see the results of what we are getting out of the facility and with all their hard work and with what they’ve accomplished as we close in on the first year is another reason to celebrate. I’ve got a great team that works at Elite Octane. I’m very proud of them.”

The event also happened to coincide with the announcement that the EPA had finalized rules allowing the year-long sale of E15 — a move farm groups had long pushed to increase access to blended fuel. Until today, gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol could not be sold during the summer months, a rule advocates said was outdated since gasoline blended with 10 percent is common across the country year round.

The change could result in higher corn prices for farmers and lower fuel prices for drivers and experts say year-round access to E15 could add demand for 100 to 200 million bushels of corn in the short-run, and up to 2 billion bushels over time.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said the change was a “significant victory for our farmers.”

“Access to E-15 year-round is a significant victory for our farmers. Earlier this year I traveled to Ypsilanti, Mich., and testified in favor of E-15 expansion,” Reynold said in release. “I said in my testimony, ‘as the number one producer of corn, ethanol, biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol, we pride ourselves in leading the charge in advancing the renewable fuels industry.’

“I want to thank President Trump and EPA Administrator Wheeler for following through on their promise to get E-15 done by this summer, fulfilling a critical commitment to our farmers and rural Iowa.

“Strong collaboration between our state, the White House, and the renewable fuels industry will continue to benefit Iowa’s ag economy.”

U.S Senator Joni Ernst echoed those thoughts and thanked the president and EPA officials for pushing the rule through so quickly.

“It’s terrific news for the ethanol industry and also for Iowa Consumers who will be getting more choice at the pump,” she said. “This has been a hard fought battle, but due to our persistent effort — and of course all of your support — the Trump administration has cut the Washington red tape and unleashed pent up demand for Iowa grown bio-fuel.”

But even with the good news, Bowdish didn’t shy away from an issue that has become a thorn in the side of ethanol producers, waivers for small petroleum refineries that allow them to delay producing certain amounts of blended fuel resulting in large stockpiles of grain less blended fuel production.

“E15 and this rule-making, it is terrific, but we need to evaluate it in light of everything that is going on in our ag markets,” Bowdish said. “Small refinery exemptions that have been granted the past two years have decimated demand for our product. I’m calling on the president today to give focus to the small refinery process — and yes it’s in the law — but there are 48 small refineries in this country and not every one of them is in hardship. Many of them are owned by multi-billion dollar companies.”

Beyond that he added that increasing ethanol blends beyond E15 to E20 would create more demand for corn, which could replace the reduction in soybean acres due to Chinese tariffs.

“Think about it - we don’t have to grow all those soybeans, we can environmentally grow more corn — use more of this fuel at home,” he said.

But EPA officials at the event said afterwards that the issue of waivers wasn’t addressed in Friday’s rule change and added that the process was part of the current law.

“This rule the president asked us to deal with the issue of E15 year-round — he asked for one rule and that’s what the agency produced,” EPA Region 7 Director Jim Gulliford said, adding that, “it’s part of the statute and how the EPA implements it is critical for ethanol producers.”