More than 200 workers in a small town 90 minutes west of Minneapolis have lost their jobs after a beef slaughtering plant was forced to shut down because its water contained excessive levels of arsenic, a condition the plant owner said he couldn't afford to fix in time to avoid federal penalties.

"I'm done," said William Gilger, owner of North Star Beef Inc. in Buffalo Lake, Minn.

The shutdown last week resulted from our growing understanding of the toxic effects of arsenic, which has led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to implement new, tighter restrictions for drinking water.

The closure was the final blow for a plant that in recent months had fallen behind in payments to its suppliers, suffered a fire that caused at least $1.1 million in damage and racked up back taxes to the county.

"Between the industry, the fire and the water, we're done," said Gilger. "This put us in a category where the bankers said you guys are way too much to risk."

Gilger said North Star Beef has customers in Asia and many domestic locations, including Texas, Florida and Washington state and the cities of Chicago, Detroit and New York.

Arsenic can kill in doses of at least 70,000 micrograms, the weight of a few grains of rice, but not in the trace amounts found widely in Minnesota's groundwater. Some two-thirds of the state's groundwater has arsenic, and some wells register as high as 150 micrograms per liter.

Most of the arsenic occurs naturally and most likely comes from shale left behind by glaciers during the last ice age, according to a state study. The amount of arsenic considered safe for drinking, 10 micrograms per liter, or 10 parts per billion, was lowered from 50 parts per billion in 2001 and became effective in 2006.

Gilger said the Minnesota Department of Health tested the plant's water last summer and found 18.4 parts per billion of arsenic.

Based on those findings, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service threatened to shut down the plant unless Gilger installed a water filter.

Gilger said he distributed bottled drinking water throughout the plant for his employees while investigating filtration systems. The cheapest he found cost $450,000 and would require four months to install, but no bank would lend him the money, he said, because of the credit crisis.

An alternative plan to save the plant would have had it hook up to the municipal water supply at a cost of $110,000, a process that would take about five weeks. But state health officials balked when they learned that Buffalo Lake's municipal water contains 30 parts per billion of arsenic, according to Gilger.

State health officials said Tuesday that they have not ruled out using the city's water supply, but wanted an engineering study done first to determine if the city could handle the plant's demands.

Last week, federal inspectors walked out of the plant over the water issue, effectively closing it down.

"It's really up to the plant to submit corrective actions," said Amanda Eamich, a USDA spokeswoman.

A double standard?

Now that he's closing, Gilger's upset at what he sees as a double standard for his plant and the local water supply.

His plant's water, at 18.4 parts per billion, requires signs throughout his plant that the water is unsafe to drink, but "there is not one sign in the school that says 'Do not drink the water,'" he said. "We have pictures of kids in the school drinking the water."

School Supt. Rick Clark did not return a call Tuesday.

The city was once known for its arsenic problems, according to Mayor Joyce Nyhus, who said Tuesday that Buffalo Lake once had the highest levels of arsenic in its groundwater of any municipality in the nation. The town's now on track to meet EPA safety levels by June, according to a state Department of Health official.

"We're drinking it," said Nyhus. "I drink it."

The beef plant is one of the largest employers in Buffalo Lake, which has a population of fewer than 800. Nyhus said she wants the plant to stay open but has had trouble negotiating with Gilger.

"He will come to a meeting and make a statement, but the follow-through isn't there."

Nyus said the city clerk told her that if the plant would pay its back taxes and assessments, "we could dig a whole new line out there for what they owe us."

$400,000 owed

Gilger said he owes about $400,000 to the county, but is unable to raise the money.

The plant has struggled with other bills, too. The USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration filed a complaint for nonpayment to livestock suppliers in November. Gilger said he has paid the $2.5 million owed.

A spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture said he was unaware of any other food plant with arsenic problems, despite the widespread levels in Minnesota.

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329