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Published June 09, 2014, 09:49 AM

Company had rash of environmental problems in 2013

OLIVIA, Minn. — Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative faced more environmental challenges in the past year than in the two previous, despite ongoing investments to improve its water treatment systems.

By: Tom Cherveny , Forum News Service

OLIVIA, Minn. — Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative faced more environmental challenges in the past year than in the two previous, despite ongoing investments to improve its water treatment systems.

“The good, bad and the ugly, all in one year” is how Louis Knieper, manager of environmental affairs for the cooperative, sums up the past year in a report to the Renville County board of commissioners on June 3. The company provides an annual report as part of its permit allowing it to discharge treated wastewater into County Ditch 45, the headwaters of Sacred Heart Creek.

The year was a challenge for the company on many fronts, starting with an early harvest-time frost. The company sliced 2.28 million tons of beets in 2013, but its growers had to plow down an estimated 800,000 tons of beets, according to the report. The company could not risk storing the frost-damaged beets, since they would have caused water and management issues.

The company’s biggest environmental problem occurred before harvest time in County Ditch 37, which drains to the West Fork of Beaver Creek. An accidental discharge of what the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency termed “nontreated” water led to a fish kill along a portion of the creek on Aug. 14.

Knieper says a valve that connected a holding pond’s drain line and the noncontact cooling water system was left open. He says the company does not know why or when the valve connecting the two had been installed.

In response to the incident, the company has installed a new, separate line system for its noncontact cooling water.

The company also reported excessive hydrogen sulfide and odor emissions from its on-site ponds in 2013. The company has not had hydrogen sulfide issues in the ponds for several years. Consultants examining the problem have not been able to determine why it has re-emerged, according to Knieper.

Southern Minnesota has invested in new equipment to aerate and chemically treat the ponds to address the problem.

It has also invested in new belt filters to reduce the solids in holding pond waters.

It also faced a challenge as last year’s sugar beet campaign began. Fecal coliform discharges exceeded the allowed limits from a new contact pond that is part of the wastewater treatment system. The pond’s larger size resulted in areas where there was stagnant water. The company added new mixers to successfully address the problem, according to Knieper.

A few positives

The year saw its accomplishments, too. The company reported more than 80 percent of its growers are participating in its cover crop program to reduce phosphorus run-off. The early season cover crops are credited with keeping 18,000 pounds of phosphorus from reaching the Minnesota River by holding soil in place.

Knieper says the company is also working to reduce nitrogen in its wastewater treatment system.

It’s also focusing on reducing its groundwater use. In the warm weather season, it uses a mechanical chiller to cut down on the noncontact cooling water needed. That has cut groundwater use by 800,000 gallons in the past few years, he says.

The company is still seeking a new permit from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to replace the one that expired in 2009. It’s now submitting its third application.

The company is asking to increase its allowed discharge into County Ditch 45 and lengthen its discharge season by one month to include April.

Knieper says the company will be hosting MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine to discuss its permit request and environmental compliance efforts.

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