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Truckload of headaches with sugar campaign

OLIVIA -- A bumper crop of sugar beets came with a truckload of headaches last year, and not just for the growers who coped with record rains during the October harvest.

An anaerobic reactor central to the processing system in the wastewater treatment plant at the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative in Renville crashed early in the campaign, setting in motion a series of challenges that extended operations to April 27.

The sugar plant continued discharging treated effluent to that date, in violation of its permit limit of March 31, Louis Knieper, director of environmental compliance, told the Renville County board of commissioners on Tuesday. Knieper came to give the company's annual, mandated report on its compliance with water quality standards.

The sugar cooperative's growers harvested over 3.6 million tons of sugar beets last year. The Renville plant processed over 3 million tons, while approximately 650,000 tons were processed for the local growers by the Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D.

The Renville plant took a series of steps to manage problems that developed with its wastewater treatment system, but the problems experienced by the reactor were compounded by the high level of soil that came with last year's crop. By mid-December nearly one-half of the volume of the troubled reactor vessel was soil, Knieper told the commissioners. The soil reduced capacity for treating effluent and complicated efforts to remedy the problems.

The treatment capacity at the wastewater plant dropped from 50 million gallons per month in the first three months of the campaign to 15 million gallons per month in the final four months.

The plant continued to meet discharge standards by treating the low strength effluent in its ponds, but the reduced capacity came with a cost. The sugar factory had 400,000 tons of frozen beets remaining in storage and nearly full wastewater storage ponds this spring. The company decided to continue treating the beets beyond the permit discharge limit and despite the much higher processing costs that would be incurred, according to Knieper.

The other option would have been to truck foul smelling beets and apply them on farm fields, causing a greater environmental impact and likely upsetting many people, he noted.

The wastewater treatment plant will begin operations early this year, in large part to treat the high volume of stored water for use on site.

Tom Cherveny

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

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