MPCA and EPA reach $1.5 million settlement with sugar beet processor over water and air violations

Contact: Dave Verhasselt, 651-757-2278

St. Paul, Minn. — The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have reached a settlement with the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative over water and air quality pollution violations. The cooperative has agreed to correct the violations and will pay more than $1.5 million in penalties. The violations, which occurred over a period of years at the co-op’s processing plant near Renville, included excessive hydrogen sulfide emissions, which cause odors and can be harmful to human health, and wastewater discharges, which resulted in a fish kill in Beaver Creek.

The agreement reached by the MPCA and EPA is a consent decree filed in district court. It addresses wastewater violations of the federal Clean Water Act, and of the co-op’s wastewater permit.

Monitoring of discharged water from the plant’s wastewater treatment system showed numerous, ongoing water quality violations from 2009 to 2015. Violations involved releasing untreated or undertreated wastewater, exceeding pollution limits, and failures in operation and maintenance.

The agreement requires the co-op to prepare a contingency plan, conduct regular monitoring and sampling, prepare models to predict possible violations, submit timely reports, and pay a $1 million penalty. In addition, the co-op must pay more than $49,000 to the Dept. of Natural Resources in restitution for the August 2013 fish kill in Beaver Creek.

A separate agreement with the MPCA addresses air pollution violations. The company will take additional steps to curb hydrogen sulfide air emissions, and pay a $485,000 civil penalty. Beyond the so-called ‘rotten egg’ odor, excessive hydrogen sulfide in the air is harmful to human health.

According to monitoring data from 2012 through 2014, there were a total of 780 violations of hydrogen sulfide air quality limits. The emissions occur primarily from large wastewater storage ponds in the processing plant’s wastewater treatment system.

According to the company, possible contributing factors included mild winter weather that allowed the ponds to be active earlier in the season, lack of rain for dilution, spoiling beet storage piles, and water transfer between treatment system ponds.

To control hydrogen sulfide emissions under the agreement, the company will use chemical treatment, manage wastewater ponds to prevent emissions, and increase monitoring where necessary. The company has through 2016 to revise the management plan if violations persist. By 2017, if violations continue, there may be additional penalties.

Founded in 1974, the cooperative has more than 500 shareholders that produce about three million tons of sugar beets annually, raised on more than 100,000 acres in central Minnesota.

When calculating penalties, the MPCA takes into account how seriously the violations affected the environment, whether they were first-time or repeat violations, and how promptly the violations were reported to authorities. The agency also attempts to recover the calculated economic benefit gained by failure to comply with environmental laws in a timely manner. For a comprehensive list of enforcement actions, visit the MPCA’s Quarterly Summary of Enforcement Actions webpage.