Renville, Minn., sugar co-op reports improving water quality compliance
OLIVIA -- The Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative met all of its water quality requirements while processing a record sugar beet crop in 2013.
Louis Knieper, manager of environmental affairs, told the Renville County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday that the sugar cooperative is making considerable strides in meetings its surface water protection requirements.
Under the terms of a 2004 agreement, Renville County, acting as the ditch authority and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, must approve the permit allowing the company to discharge into County Ditch 45, the headwaters of Sacred Heart Creek.
The cooperative sliced a record 3.287 million tons of sugar beets in its lengthiest campaign ever, spanning 245 days.
It treated and released 184 million gallons of water from its factory and 640-acre site near Renville during the Sept. 11, 2012, to Jan. 10, 2013, period.
The company is improving its wastewater treatment system and expanding on-site storage to allow it to better manage the large volumes of water involved in its operations, according to Knieper and John Dean, vice president of operations.
The company expanded two water storage ponds and built a seventh on site to increase storage capacity. It also invested in a new filtration system to handle the water used to wash the sugar beets arriving at the plant, often with significant amounts of soil.
Dean said the company has increased its spending on environmental compliance from $4.5 million a year four or five years ago to about $9 million a year now. It has also increased its annual capital expenditures related to environmental compliance to about $4 million annually.
While it has been under much-publicized regulatory scrutiny, it is also gaining attention for success. Knieper noted the cooperative has been invited to speak about its successful cover crop program at a conference focusing on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia.
The cooperative is seeing 80 percent participation by its growers in the cover crop program, which was credited with keeping 18,000 pounds of phosphorus from the Minnesota River last year.
The cooperative is seeking a permit to expand both the amount of treated water it can discharge into County Ditch 45, and the time frame for its release. Knieper said the company is asking to expand its allowed, annual discharge to be increased from roughly 2.3 million gallons to 3.6 million gallons.
It is also seeking authority to discharge during the month of April, which it currently is not allowed to do. The April discharge would be stopped when water temperatures in Sacred Heart Creek reach just over 55 degrees Fahrenheit, so as not to interfere with northern pike spawning in the lower reaches.
Knieper said engineering studies indicate the ditch has the capacity to handle 7 million gallons, so there would remain sufficient capacity for other system users.
The cooperative has been expanding sugar production towards an allocation of about 10.5 million hundredweight, according to Dean. Sugar prices tumbled in the past year, and the cooperative is actually reducing acreage for this year's crop by 10,000 acres with a 9.5 million hundredweight goal, he said.
The cooperative has 119,000 shares, each representing an acre, but the company can have its shareholders plant more or less, Dean told the board.