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Southern Minnesota Beet sees more environmental challenges in 2013

OLIVIA — Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative faced more environmental challenges in the last year than in the two previous, despite on-going investments to improve its water treatment systems.

“The good, bad and the ugly, all in one year” is how Louis Knieper, manager of environmental affairs for the cooperative, summed up the past year in a report to the Renville County board of commissioners on Tuesday. The company provides an annual report as part of its permit allowing it to discharge treated wastewater into County Ditch 45, the headwaters of Sacred Heart Creek.

The year was a challenge for the company on many fronts, starting with an early harvest-time frost. The company sliced 2.28 million tons of beets in 2013, but its growers had to plow down an estimated 800,000 tons of beets, according to the SMBSC report. The company could not risk storing the frost damaged beets, since they would have caused water and management issues.

The company’s biggest environmental problem occurred prior to harvest time in County Ditch 37, which drains to the West Fork of Beaver Creek. An accidental discharge of what the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency termed “non-treated’’ water led to a fish kill along a portion of the creek on August 14.

Knieper told the commissioners that a valve that connected a holding pond’s drain line and the non-contact cooling water system was left open. He said the company does not know why or when the valve connecting the two had been installed.

In response to the incident, the company has installed a new, separate line system for its non-contact cooling water.

The company also reported excessive hydrogen sulfide and odor emissions from its on-site ponds in 2013. The company has not had hydrogen sulfide issues in the ponds for several years. Consultants examining the problem have not been able to tell the company why it has re-emerged, according to Knieper.

Southern Minnesota has invested in new equipment to aerate and chemically treat the ponds to address the problem.

It has also invested in new belt filters to reduce the solids in holding pond waters.

It also faced a challenge as last year’s sugar beet campaign began. Fecal coliform discharges exceeded the allowed limits from a new contact pond that is part of the wastewater treatment system. The pond’s larger size resulted in areas where there was stagnant water. The company added new mixers to successfully address the problem, according to Knieper.

The year saw its accomplishments too. The company reported that over 80 percent of its growers are participating in its cover crop program to reduce phosphorus run-off. The early season cover crops are credited with keeping 18,000 pounds of phosphorus from reaching the Minnesota River by holding soil in place.

Knieper said the company is also working to reduce nitrogen in its wastewater treatment system.

It’s also focusing on reducing its groundwater use. In the warm weather season, it uses a mechanical chiller to cut down on the non-contact cooling water needed. That has cut groundwater use by 800,000 gallons over the past few years, he said.

The company is still seeking a new permit from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to replace the one that expired in 2009. It’s now submitting its third application.  

The company is asking to increase its allowed discharge into County Ditch 45 and lengthen its discharge season by one month to include April.

Knieper said the company will be hosting MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine to discuss its permit request and environmental compliance efforts.

Tom Cherveny

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

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