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County Board grills ethanol plant managers

By Staff | Feb 7, 2011

BioFuel Energy employees Robert Young, Rick Yabroff and Bob Crockett turn to answer a question from the public at last Tuesday's county board meeting.

The Faribault County Board of Commissioners – as well as members of the public – had its chance to question three members of the Buffalo Lake Ethanol plant in Fairmont about plans to pipe its waste water 17 miles to the Blue Earth River.

And, the three men from the plant had an equal opportunity to present their case at the one and a half hour County Board work session last Tuesday afternoon.

In the end, the discussion was simply ended, and since it was a work session only, the board did not discuss the matter further or make any decisions.

Commissioner Tom Loveall led the questioning, hammering the three from the ethanol plant about their violations as listed by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and questioning the plant’s current compliance with regulations.

Rick Yabroff, an engineer with BioFuel Energy Corporation which owns the Fairmont ethanol plant, admitted the plant had some issues when it first went online in 2007.

“There were some design flaws in the beginning,” he says. “But, we are in full compliance now.”

Yabroff, along with plant manager Bob Crockett and project manager Robert Young, had brought a quart jar of the water that is being discharged now, to show how clear it is.

“This water is not used in the production of the ethanol,” Yabroff says. “It is used in the boilers and cooling process. It is pumped from an underground aquifer, and we treat it much like a water softener does.”

He added that it only has minerals, such as chloride, in it, and does not have pollutants.

Yabroff’s main point, which he repeated several times to the commissioners, was that the water – 500,000 gallons per day – is currently being discharged into Center Creek, which eventually empties into the Blue Earth River.

“So, we are not changing anything,” he says. “This water is already going to the river, we are just going to take it in a pipeline now, instead of using Center Creek.”

He added that the reason they could no longer use Center Creek is that it sometimes goes dry, and also does not have the right MPCA designation. The plant had been issued a variance by the MPCA to dump into the creek, and that variance is now expiring.

Loveall questioned why the plant had not developed a new plan for the waste water until now.

“You had five years,” Loveall says. “It seems to me you rode these permits as hard as you could until the very end and now you are desperate.”

Yabroff responded that the plant was busy correcting the design flaws and getting in compliance with the MPCA citations.

“The company spent about $1 million correcting those design flaws,” Yabroff says. “So not as much energy was spent looking for solutions for the variances. We were, and still are, in compliance.”

Other commissioners asked about possible solutions to the waste water problem besides piping it to the Blue Earth River. Some of those ideas were using evaporation ponds, or dumping the water into other creeks or lakes in Martin County.

“Couldn’t it be dumped into the City of Fairmont’s lakes?” Commissioner Bill Groskreutz, Jr., asked.

Yabroff responded that it was very difficult to get permits to dump the water into any lakes, especially since Fairmont uses lake water for drinking water.

“But, you said the water in this jar is perfectly safe to drink,” Groskreutz countered.

Groskreutz also asked about dumping the water into the Fairmont waste water treatment plant, much like the Corn Plus plant does in Winnebago.

Yabroff says the Fairmont treatment plant isn’t capable of handling this type of waste water, they are set for bio-waste water.

“We have explored all of the options, including piping it to the Minnesota River,” Yabroff says. “This is the best plan. It really isn’t much different than what is being done currently.”

Plant manager Crockett told the board the ethanol plant has customers and employees from Faribault County and want to be good neighbors with the community and area.

“I’m the guy who goes to the coffee shops and hears the comments about the violations we’ve had,” Crockett says. “We want to operate a plant in compliance with regulations and safety for our employees and the public is a main concern, as well as being a good neighbor to the community.”

“I don’t feel you are being that good of a corporate neighbor,” Loveall answered. “I don’t think you are shooting straight with us. I feel it isn’t fair to say the water is ‘crystal clear,’ not fair to say it will not degrade the water quality in the river. I think it is going to impact it.”

One of the citizens in attendance, Jeremy Coxworth, asked to take the bottle of water and test it at his business, Coxworth Water Conditioning.

Yabroff at first refused, saying all testing has to be done in licensed labs.

But, Crockett eventually handed the water sample over to Coxworth.

Crockett says he cannot allow sampling of water at the plant, but adds anyone can take a sample at the point where the water enters Center Creek.

“We have nothing to hide, and want you (the board) and the public to be fully informed,” Yabroff says. “We are happy to be able to answer any of your questions.