Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative in Renville meets environmental goals, but at a cost
In annual report to Renville County, the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative outlined the costly challenges it faced meeting environmental compliance goals in 2021.
OLIVIA — From an environmental standpoint, Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative had a very good year.
The cooperative has maintained a string of years in which it met its environmental compliance goals, according to information provided to the Renville County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday by Vidyasagar "Sakar" Sunkavalli, the co-op's environmental manager.
However, it proved a costly year for the cooperative to do so.
Sunkavalli in his report described the past year as one of the “most rough and challenging” years. The company made a lot of costly decisions to assure that it maintained environmental compliance, he told commissioners.
Growers produced the largest crop in the cooperative’s 47-year history in 2021. Growers averaged a record 36.5 tons of sugar beets per acre. The shareholders planted 121,385 acres, but were able to harvest about 97,000 acres. They left about 20% of the crop in the field.
Meeting environmental requirements was one of the factors affecting how much of the crop could be harvested and processed. The processing rate has to be tempered so that the wastewater can be most effectively treated to meet standards.
Sunkavalli provided his report to the County Board as part of a requirement in the county permit allowing the cooperative’s processing facility in Renville to discharge into County Ditch 45, which is also Sacred Heart Creek.
The company has been discharging into the system for 16 years. Bio-monitoring performed by an independent company has found that its discharges have had no measurable impact on aquatic organisms, according to the report.
Sunkavalli said the company made decisions to slow down processing rates to assure that it did not exceed its allowed effluent levels. There were instances when it had to stop discharges when the level of organic matter in the wastewater was creeping up so that the issues could be fixed, he explained.
There were a variety of factors that added to the challenges of meeting environmental goals. Last year’s drought had lowered water levels in its four wastewater ponds. Consequently, the wastewater plant could not begin full operations until Nov. 13, when it usually starts in September.
Overall, there were 3.6 million tons of beets harvested. Due to natural shrinkage, the actual beets sliced totaled 3.2 million tons, according to the report.
With its remote piling sites storing a record crop for processing, warm winter and spring weather increased spoilage issues. The company made decisions to close the valves and retain the stormwater at the Bird Island, Clara City West, Buffalo Lake and Murdock sites.
For the first time ever, a new permit from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency allows the cooperative to apply the stormwater from those sites on land. In the past, the company has had to truck the water to the factory’s wastewater plant. That’s costly, Sunkavalli noted, pointing to fuel prices.
The company found that land application has its costs as well. It was difficult and costly to secure land at current commodity prices, he said.
Sunkavalli told the commissioners that the company also dealt with supply chain, labor shortage and COVID-related challenges through it all.
“Everything seems to be acting against what we want to do: The right thing,” Sunkavalli said.
One of the challenges proved to be a requirement of its new discharge permit. It requires that the company perform leakage tests on each of its four wastewater ponds. Keeping a pond full and untouched for a lengthy test period contributed to odor issues, he said.
Overall, the company discharged 233 million gallons of treated wastewater into County Ditch 45. It was allowed to discharge up to 3.5 million gallons a day during the processing. Its discharges averaged 1.47 million gallons a day.
The company earned a record 18,000 phosphorus credits as its growers planted a record 80,000 acres of cover crops in the spring to reduce runoff of the nutrient.
The company was also successful in continuing a trend toward reducing the dissolved minerals, or salinity, of the water being discharged from the factory site.
“(It was) certainly a challenging year, but it didn’t come at the cost of noncompliance,” Sunkavalli said.
Chair Randy Kramer asked Sunkavalli whether the company would retain the commitment to environmental compliance under its new CEO and president, Paul Fry. Fry succeeded Steve Domm, who had committed the company to full environmental compliance.
Sunkavalli said Fry brings experience dealing with many of the same environmental challenges as he did in his former role with Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, North Dakota. The environmental manager said he has been assured the company’s new leader remains committed to the goals.