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Renville sugar cooperative reports improving compliance

The exterior of Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative in Renville. Tribune photo

OLIVIA -- Under increasing scrutiny for past environmental violations, the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative reported Tuesday that it completed the 2010-11 beet slicing campaign with a much improved record.

Louis Knieper, environmental manager of the cooperative, told the Renville County Board of Commissioners that many of the issues that had troubled its operations one year earlier have been successfully managed.

That's despite facing many of the same challenges. The cooperative harvested 3.2 million tons of beets and sliced 2.89 million tons in the last campaign, according to Knieper.

That is believed to make the 2010 crop the second largest ever, with 2009 being the largest.

And like 2009, the past year presented higher-than-normal precipitation levels which taxed the capacity of on-site storage, irrigation and mechanical treatment practices.

Knieper said the wastewater treatment plant operated "acceptably'' last year while treating 364.7 million gallons, a larger-than-normal volume. Problems with the plant had been a major issue in the previous year's campaign, when a wet fall meant the sugar beets arrived with large quantities of soil.

The sugar cooperative began the 2010 campaign with overfilled storage ponds on site, and was forced to exceed its discharge limits for treated water in September and October as a result.

While there were some exceedences reported, the company made lots of progress toward meeting its surface water protection requirements and water quality standards, according to Knieper.

It also saw progress toward improved overall water quality. It has been able to reduce the average salinity of the water in its treatment ponds by reducing the measured conductivity from 9,000 siemens to around 4,500 siemens, he said.

And this spring, it has been able to regularly pass the whole effluent toxicity test for the first time. The Environmental Protection Agency-mandated test requires subjecting a specific macro-invertebrate to treated wastewater to assess the discharge's impact on aquatic life.

The cooperative's biggest disappointment came as a result of its ponds being overfilled with high-strength process water. The cooperative reported 39 incidents when hydrogen sulfide emissions exceeded the 30-minute limit; 37 of the exceedances occurred in April.

The environmental manager reported the company is continuing to keep phosphorus from the Minnesota River and earning increasing amounts of credits for doing so. Cover crop participation has grown to 75 percent of the cooperative farmers, according to a company report.

Knieper made note of the increased scrutiny the company is under. He said it has hosted inspectors with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. It has also satisfied an EPA demand for all of its records to 1993, representing more than 500 gigabytes of data.

It has also reached a stipulation agreement with the MPCA on Jan. 4 requiring it to pay $50,400 for 32 hydrogen sulfide emission violations.

Water quantity issues and the limited channel capacity of County Ditch 45 remain an issue for the cooperative. It had requested to return to discharging into County Ditch 37, which has greater capacity.

The county and cooperative will be meeting at a later date to discuss other discharge options. They include a costly proposal to pipe its discharge directly to the Minnesota River. One idea that had been floated -- but apparently rejected -- would have sent the treated water to the Granite Falls Energy plant.

The sugar cooperative is required to present an annual report on its environmental compliance as part of its surface water discharge permit.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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