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Shrinking 'footprint' benefiting sugar company

OLIVIA -- Leaving a "smaller footprint'' has become an environmental mantra.

It has also become good business for the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative.

Louis Knieper, director of environmental compliance for the cooperative, told the Renville County Board of Commissioners that the company's efforts to reduce its environmental "footprint'' are also benefiting the bottom line. Knieper met with the commissioners to give the company's annual report on environmental compliance, a condition of a 2004 permit that allows it to discharge its treated wastewater into County Ditch 45, or Sacred Heart Creek.

The Renville company processed 2.78 million tons of sugar beets in its last campaign, one of the largest crops despite a reduction in acres planted. Last year's beets were "large and healthy," and a colder-than-normal winter benefited the company by reducing spoilage problems at beet piling sites, according to Knieper.

The company continued to make big strides in encouraging its growers to plant cover crops that reduce wind and water erosion and stop phosphorus from reaching waterways in the Minnesota River.

It has also funded grassland projects for both cattle grazing and to serve as buffers along waterways to trap the nutrient.

In return, the company has generated a net positive balance of more than 3,600 phosphorous trade credits in its favor, according to Knieper. Wastewater treatment plants in the Minnesota River are being required to meet stricter phosphorus discharge limits under a new cap and trade system. It allows those not meeting their discharge limits to purchase or trade for credits from others who are under their limits.

The company's wastewater plant treated 302.6 million gallons of water during the 2007-08 campaign without any violations of its permit.

He said the company's only environmental issues that required reporting included 14 molasses spills as trucks were overfilled and a hydrogen sulfide discharge. The spilled molasses drained directly into the treatment system and caused no environmental problems.

About 10 to 20 pounds of toxic hydrogen sulfide was released into the air when a plug on a tank failed. Fortunately, it occurred during the rain May 10, which turned it into sulfuric acid which was collected by the wastewater treatment system, he said.

The company replaced a chemical system for softening beet juice with a new resin-bed system. The resin system has greatly reduced the amount of dissolved minerals and consequently the salinity of the effluent discharged into the ditch, he said.

The amount of dissolved solids is still higher than desired however, and the company will likely ask for another exemption for its discharge permit when it begins the re-application process in 2009, he said.

The improved operations at the wastewater plant meant that the company succeeded in decreasing the amount of effluent it sprayed on land to 82 million gallons, according to Knieper.

The company also resolved a problem that saw it fined for violations of nitrate discharges from field runoff. The discharges were coming from a common tile line shared with neighboring farm fields. The company closed the connection. It found that tile line discharges that followed spring and fall fertilizer applications on the neighboring fields no longer contained higher-than-allowed amounts of ammonia.

The company installed heat exchangers that allow it to capture more energy from the coal it burns to power operations.

The company is now working to eliminate what Knieper called a waste of topsoil that is collected with the beets delivered for processing. The topsoil is collected as it falls from beets on conveyor belts, as the beets are washed, and when it settles in wastewater ponds.

The company is seeking permits that would allow it to capture the topsoil and provide it to farmers, who he said are eager to apply it to fields with sandy soils.