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Renville Co. puts teeth in beet plant discharge permit; large fine possible

OLIVIA -- Much to the frustration of downstream farmers, the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative violated its discharge permit last season by continuing to send millions of gallons of treated effluent into Renville County Ditch 45 well into the planting season.

The sugar cooperative discharged effluent through April 27, well beyond the March 31 date at which its permit with Renville County allows. This coming year, the county could fine the company $10,000 for each day it violates that permit.

A $10,000 a day fine and a requirement that the cooperative immediately stop all discharges into the ditch whenever farm field tile lines are backing up are among changes to the permit that the Renville County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved Tuesday.

The board's action at the meeting Tuesday followed a hearing aimed at addressing the problems that have resulted ever since the cooperative was forced to switch its wastewater discharge from County Ditch 37 to County Ditch 45.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency required the change in 2004 to protect water quality in County Ditch 37.

Ever since, downstream landowners on County Ditch 45 have complained about flooding issues -- including backed up field tiles -- that have resulted from the volume of water added by the sugar cooperative during its processing campaign. It's allowed to discharge into the system from Sept. 1 through March 31.

The cooperative experienced major challenges last year, according to Louis Knieper, director of environmental compliance for the cooperative. A series of problems with the wastewater treatment plant's anaerobic digester limited the discharge during the first half of the processing campaign, forcing the cooperative to hold more effluent in on-site ponds. The extremely wet autumn meant that sugar beets arriving at the factory carried a heavy load of soil, which compounded the wastewater treatment problems.

And, the sugar cooperative harvested a record 3.6 million tons of sugar beets, greatly adding to the volume of water being handled.

As a result, the company in March had to decide whether to spread tons of sugar beets on fields or violate its discharge permit and extend its campaign into April.

Knieper said the cooperative is again expecting a big harvest, with current projections ranging from 3.4 million to 3.6 million tons.

The cooperative completed a series of projects to correct the mechanical and maintenance problems that plagued the anaerobic digester last year, Knieper told the commissioners.

It also has started to draw down the water held in on-site storage ponds. They have been "over full'' or holding water above their freeboard limit of 355 million gallons. The cooperative plans to rely on treatment and irrigation to draw down the water in the ponds from 385 million gallons to 277 million gallons.

Knieper said the company has begun wastewater treatment operations on Sept. 1 and is discharging an average of 2.3 million gallons a day into County Ditch 45. Its current projection calls for averaging that discharge rate through the campaign.

The commissioners considered a proposal to amend the permit to allow discharge from the system to begin Aug. 1 instead of Sept. 1, but took no action. The cooperative's permit with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency limits the discharges to the period of Sept. 1 through March 31.

The commissioners and their attorney, Kurt Deters, expressed their frustration that the MPCA has not responded to requests to participate in discussions on the County Ditch 45 issue. The county has asked the agency to reconsider its 2004 decision and allow the cooperative's discharges to return to County Ditch 37.

Knieper said the cooperative has also expressed similar interest to the MPCA, but has not received a response. The cooperative is looking at other options, including a very costly project of building a pipeline 12 to 15 miles to the Minnesota River in place of the county ditch.


Discharge point not monitored

OLIVIA -- Water quality testing and volume monitoring for the effluent discharged into Renville County Ditch 45 are conducted at the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative factory site, or nearly 1½ miles from the actual discharge point.

That's a flaw in the permit that should be corrected, according to Clifford Mohs, who spoke at the hearing on County Ditch 45 conducted Tuesday by the Renville County Board of Commissioners.

Mohs calculated that the effluent travels for about six hours through an underground pipe before it's discharged into the ditch. The dissolved oxygen would decrease and the water chemistry in the effluent would change during that period of time, he said.

Mohs said the fact that monitoring occurs at the start of the pipeline also means that there is no accurate measurement of how much water is actually being discharged. There could be leaks, infiltration or other sources of water not being accounted for, he explained.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's permit for the discharge specifies the points where the volume of discharge must be monitored and water samples collected for testing, according to Louis Knieper, director of environmental compliance for the company.