Bushmills to use, discharge less water
ATWATER -- A relatively straightforward air-permitting procedure, started in April of 2006 to allow Bushmills Ethanol to expand its production, has turned into a lengthy and expensive venture for the Atwater business.
"It's a long, convoluted process," said Erik Osmon, a bit wearily, during a recent interview. A "can of worms" is how he likes to describe it.
With engineer's drawings laid out on the boardroom table to show a complicated diagram of pipes, pumps, filters and other new equipment, and numbers on a whiteboard to compare before and after figures, the Bushmills CEO tries to explain the journey that will end up costing the ethanol production facility nearly $2.5 million.
That expense comes at a time of high corn prices and puts an unexpected financial burden on the plant, which began producing ethanol in December of 2005.
But the end result will mean the plant can continue to produce more ethanol than under the original permit. It also means the plant will use less water from the underground aquifer and discharge less water into the drainage ditch.
And the water Bushmills does discharge into Ditch 17 will now be nearly as pure as the water it gets from the well.
The bright side, said Osmon, is that Bushmills is "negating" an impact on the environment.
When Bushmills was built, it was designed to produce more than 49 million gallons a year, but under the original air permit issued by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, that's all it could legally produce.
In 2006 Bushmills sought to reopen that permit so that it could increase production to 65 million gallons.
But when the MPCA opened up the air permit, it also determined Bushmill's water permit must also be reviewed and new standards for the "total maximum daily load" of potential contaminants in discharged water were applied. Because Ditch 17 is not classified as a waterway, it fell under the most stringent guidelines, said Osmon. "The rules changed," he said.
In June of 2007, Bushmills was permitted for 65 million gallons -- even though it can't physically produce that much yet -- as long as it met the new water standards within the timeline of one year and three months.
In order to meet the MPCA standards and be compliant by August, Bushmills had to make changes in the water it discharges.
The other option was to wait for the MPCA to identify Ditch 17 as a waterway, which Osmon said wouldn't happen until 2011, or operate in violation of the permit.
"All I know is the state told me to do something and I did it," said Osmon.
After meeting with consultants and researching alternative plans, Bushmills settled on a plan that purifies the water before it's used in the ethanol process and purifies it again on the way out.
Installation of the equipment began in July and is still being adjusted to increase automation and decrease employee time.
A majority of the water used in the ethanol production process is used in the cooling towers and does not come into contact with the corn mash. All the water that comes in contact with the corn is recycled within the facility, Osmon said.
Most of the water in the cooling tower evaporates. But the water that is left contains minerals, such as iron, calcium and lime.
The new equipment, which is housed in a separate building on the edge of Bushmill's property along U.S. Highway 12, removes some of those minerals before the water enters the plant. The equipment includes a pellet reactor that ionically charges and captures minerals, a clarifier, and a "super large reverse osmosis" processor.
A byproduct of that process is small crystalline pellets, made mostly of iron and calcium. Researchers are analyzing the properties of the pellets to see if it enhances the quality of cement, which could give the byproduct a market in the construction industry, said Eric Fessler, CEO of Procorp Enterprises LLC, the Wisconsin company that installed the equipment.
In California, where similar systems are installed in water treatment plants, the pellets are used as a soil amendment.
Another process removes remaining minerals, mostly lime, from water that's used in the cooling towers. That byproduct currently goes to the landfill.
The equipment, which is still being "tweaked," has helped Bushmills use water more efficiently, it provides the plant with a better quality of water for the yeast to grow, does not negatively affect the plant's production and, of course, meets the requirements of the permit.
"We start with something cleaner," said Osmon of the water that comes into the plant.
The water that's discharged is also cleaner. Osmon said he's drunk that water before.
The discharged water is "very similar" to the water that comes from the well, said Fessler. Household water softened with salt softeners wouldn't meet the strict discharge standards Bushmills must adhere to, he said. The "innovative" technology Bushmills is using will help them meet the standards, said Fessler.
Rich Wiedner, from Water Treatment Technologies in Litchfield, said by tweaking the equipment and chemicals in the process, Bushmills is recycling as much water as it can and is working to meet state requirements.
Bushmills Ethanol's water usage should also decrease in the cooling tower process.
Before, in the summer months, Bushmills used 320 gallons of water a minute. Now it will use 285 gallons a minute.
In the winter months the plant used 175 gallons of water a minute. But with the new equipment it will use 145 gallons a minute.
Using less water should answer criticism about ethanol plants using too much water, a claim that Osmon said is a "tad unfair" to the ethanol industry.
The positive environmental changes, as well as the industry's positive impact on domestic fuel, should help improve the public perception of ethanol.
Osmon said people don't appreciate ethanol like he thinks they should. The recently adopted Republican platform that calls for removing ethanol mandates, and repeated calls for more oil drilling, sends the message that rural American industry has lost out to large oil companies.