In response to more than a dozen complaints, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality — Air Quality Division has opened an investigation into a particularly acrid odor wafting from the settling ponds adjacent to the Western Sugar plant in Lovell. The ponds are a holding area for water discharged from the plant at the end of the beet processing campaign.
According to DEQ Air Quality Engineer Greg Meeker, though complaints would indicate that the odor is much stronger than normal for this time of the year, measurements have not yielded a high enough reading to issue a violation to the plant. Violations are issued based on odor intensity and must meet a certain standard before a violation can be issued.
Meeker said, based on the similarity of the complaints, he has no doubt the smell is very strong at times, but it has not tested high enough during the time frames it has been measured. He said some of that might have to do with weather conditions, like the wind.
Meeker said the plant has received two violations in recent history, one in 2007 and one in 2014. He said the plant used a higher than normal volume of water during its processing those years. Due to the exceptionally high yield during this year’s harvest, a high volume of water was also used, leading Meeker to believe that the abundance of water is a major contributor to the cause. He said another contributing factor might be the increased amount of solids like mud and beet pulp. Abnormal weather has also been a factor, he said.
“Normally the ponds freeze for a while,” said Meeker. “I’m not sure that happened this year. The weather was highly abnormal in many ways both in air temperature and the amount and direction of the wind.”
Meeker explained that, as part of the processing, the water is discharged into the ponds. Since there was more water than the ponds could handle this year, there was an overflow into shallow evaporative ponds. He said he felt confident that plant officials are doing everything within their current capabilities to reduce the smell, which he added does not appear to be an immediate health hazard.
A statement released by Western Sugar’s Denver office explained, “Sugar Beets are transported into the factory through a water flume system. This water flume system also will partially clean the mud and debris off of the beet, as it is introduced into the process. As a result, this water is flumed out of the factory and into various settling ponds onsite. The settling ponds are used to allow the suspended mud and agriculture debris to separate from the water, falling out in the pond.
“This settling process allows for the flume water to be recycled and reused multiple times during the campaign. The onsite ponds are managed onsite to include natural and mechanical aeration, ultimately discharged offsite the following campaign as allowed in Western Sugar Cooperative’s discharge permit.”
Meeker added that his team is meeting with the plant on a weekly basis to find a solution to the problem. Some ideas under consideration are the release of water, which is rich in nutrients, into nearby agricultural fields. Another idea under consideration is to transport some of the solids to a nearby solid waste dump. He said the DEQ is also investigating what the impact would be if the plant was allowed to discharge some of the water into the nearby river.
He said the DEQ is also “seeking permission from Cheyenne” to test the chemical composition of the ponds. Tests, similar to ones done in oil fields, have found negligible levels of toxins, though Meeker said would like to see this investigated more, noting that the health aspect is more of an issue for the Wyoming Department of Health to investigate.
According to a memo issued by Western Sugar Environmental Health and Safety Director Josh Livingston, abnormal weather patterns like the ones experienced this spring, with a combination of rain, then dry, hot, windy weather, has contributed greatly to the development of the odor within the onsite settling ponds.
“Western Sugar aggressively stays diligent to this occurring every inter-campaign, utilizing our team members with pond management, water circulation and perfume/odor masking agent introduction into our ponds,” he wrote.
Heather Luther of Western Sugar’s Denver office said the company, which is owned by local farmers, has already spent upwards of $20,000 on odorants designed to help reduce the smell. She said the company is working very closely with the DEQ to respond to every complaint received, adding that the company has received about four notices from the DEQ so far this year, in response to concerns expressed by community members.
By Patti Carpenter