EPA focuses on chronic polluter

A sugar beet plant near Renville has a long history of fines from the state for draining pollutants into the Minnesota River.

Federal pollution authorities have quietly stepped in to help Minnesota force a huge sugar beet processor near Renville to end its long history of fouling streams that lead to the state's most troubled river.

Southern Minnesota Sugar Beet Cooperative has tangled repeatedly with the state Pollution Control Agency (PCA) over its processing plant near the Minnesota River, and it has been fined numerous times in the past 15 years for air and water quality violations.

Now, in an unusual step, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has taken the lead on legal action against the farmer-owned co-op and has initiated a discussion with executives about what it will take to address its chronic problems.

Co-op officials did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Taken one by one, the plant's violations are not egregious, state officials said. But their ongoing nature, environmental advocates say, illustrates the limits of the state's ability to enforce state and federal air and water quality laws. Late last year, the sugar beet cooperative was cited by a Minnesota environmental watchdog group as one example of how a light touch on violators is often ineffective.

Jeff Connell, an enforcement official with the PCA, acknowledged last week that the hundreds of thousands of dollars the co-op has paid over the years in financial penalties have not proven to be the economic deterrent they were designed to be.

"We've looked at short-term fixes, Band-Aid approaches," Connell said. "Now the EPA is going to tell them they have a problem."

In Minnesota, the PCA is charged with enforcing federal pollution laws, and, in this state, asking the federal agency to step in is rare. But the EPA comes with a bigger stick, experts said, including larger fines and enforcement through federal courts.

"The EPA will have greater penalty authority," said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a national group that helps communities enforce federal environmental laws. If the EPA is involved "things will definitely happen," he said, especially since the state and federal officials present a united front.

Some who live near the west-central Minnesota plant, however, said that a far more effective solution may be bringing local communities into the discussion.

"The EPA is coming in because [the co-op] has apparently proved it cannot govern itself," said Patrick Moore, a member of CURE, a Montevideo-based citizens group leading an effort to clean up the Minnesota River. "But we want them as equal participants in a dialogue that is not framed by the stick as much as it is at getting at cultural and societal values that we all share."

Tons of sugar beets

The Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative is both the major employer in the county and a vital piece of the sugar beet industry in that part of the state.

The factory was built, just east of Renville, on a square mile of land that drains into the Minnesota River. According to its website, each year it processes about 2.6 million tons of sugar beets grown in 17 counties by 587 farmers who share ownership.

Sugar beet processing can be messy because beets are mostly water. To handle both the water and pulp produced in processing, the facility has numerous ponds and lagoons and its own water treatment plant, which can handle up to 3 million gallons a day. It gets rid of some its waste water by distributing it over 1,000 acres planted in grass and alfalfa.

The co-op's pollution problems are mostly the result of processing more beets than the facility can handle, Connell said. As a result, the ponds often overflow; rotting beet piles leach fluids into water and produce hydrogen sulfide -- a gas that emits a foul rotting-egg smell that in high concentrations is a health risk.

Much of the problem is difficult to control, Connell said, because plant managers can't always predict crop yields and weather. An early, warm spring can turn a pile of frozen beets into a pollution problem in short order, he said.

The co-op has also improved its performance over the years, said both state and Renville county pollution officials. Connell said he's seen photographs from 15 years ago that show acres and acres of beet piles, and that's no longer the case.

Still, the list of infractions is long. In 2000, beet juice that leaked into two nearby waterways may have caused a major fish kill. According to PCA documents, between 2005 and 2010 the plant violated water pollution limits 29 times, emitting illegally high levels of phosphorous, bacteria, ammonia and solids into county ditches that eventually drain into local streams and the Minnesota River, one of the most troubled waterways in the state.

Contingency plan?

Diane Mitchell, water management coordinator for Renville County, said the biggest problem is that the plant puts off too much water. Last spring the plant's discharge flooded the fields of farmers downstream.

In September, the Renville County Board decided that this year it will fine the plant $10,000 each time it discharges wastewater into the ditch after March 31, the last day its county permit allows it to do so. Mitchell said it was one of the few times a county government in Minnesota has taken such a step.

According to local news reports, plant officials said they had more water than they could handle because the co-op harvested a record 3.6 million tons of sugar beets.

"It doesn't seem like there is a contingency plan," Mitchell said.

Other beet processors in the state have to strike a similar balancing act, but do not have the same history of pollution problems, Connell said. Those facilities may leave excess beets in the field, have bigger ponds, more refrigeration capacity or pipe their water to municipal water treatment facilities, he said.

Last December the EPA issued an order to the co-op requiring it to address specific water violations and equipment problems. In March it issued a $125,400 fine for violations related to the facility's handling of sulfur dioxide.

Now, the county, state and federal governments expect to sit down with co-op officials to devise a plan to address the problems of too many beets and too much water. That may include limiting its production or leaving beets in the fields, Connell said.

Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, said regulations work best when they function as a brick wall, because "that drives accountability and responsibility." The question now, he added, is whether the co-op has met that wall.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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