Smells of summer: Flowers, fresh-cut grass -- and bacteria-ridden water?

Summer is here, even if the weather doesn't seem like it yet. But along with the season comes something local residents don't eagerly anticipate -- the sometimes overpowering smell rising from treatment ponds at American Crystal Sugar Co. in East...


Summer is here, even if the weather doesn't seem like it yet. But along with the season comes something local residents don't eagerly anticipate -- the sometimes overpowering smell rising from treatment ponds at American Crystal Sugar Co. in East Grand Forks.

Lloyd Kennedy, factory manager at the plant, said the latest round of stench that blanketed wide areas on both sides of the river happened because a pond became "active." That means bacteria in the water started to consume organic materials, mainly sugar, when conditions such as the temperature and pH factor were right.

He said the pond showed some activity Friday but mostly started causing problems during the weekend. Even with numerous odor controls in place, Kennedy said, this still is a possibility at any time.

"Like I've told the City Council in East Grand Forks, we always have potential, and this year is no exception," he said. "We're doing everything we can to control odors. This is one that we couldn't control."

Rainy conditions Monday made it hard for workers to use the heavy equipment needed for some of the odor-fighting steps, he said. But Kennedy was hopeful things would be under control soon and said the odor had greatly lessened by the afternoon.


Getting better?

Kennedy said there are a number of things the plant has done in recent years to make the air a little easier to breathe. One of the five ponds at the facility that can create odor has already received improved aeration, which has "made a big difference," he said.

Workers place straw covers on some of the ponds to cut the smell, and they are working on many infrastructure improvements that will help process the wastewater. When a stench arises, they apply odor chemicals to combat the natural processes that lead to not-so-sweet aromas.

American Crystal has begun installing a permanent cover on one of the ponds that could soon lead to more pleasant spring and summer air. "We're hopeful that it will make a big difference in this type of situation next year, but we've got to get there," he said.

Wally Helland, environmental health supervisor in Grand Forks, said the fact that the plant is across state boundaries means it's outside of their control. His office fields numerous complaints each year, with the amount on a given day depending on the time of year and direction of the wind.

But the number of complaints has gone down recently, and he said he's not aware of any calls about the odor so far this year. That's probably because people have learned by now that his office really can't do much about it, he said.

"But smelling it today, it wouldn't surprise me," he said Monday. "It's back today with the wind."

Helland said city officials have contacted the Minnesota health department and Pollution Control Agency over the years, but "I don't think they've really made any headway there." Working with plant officials has usually been even less productive, he said.


No guarantees

Kennedy said the plant has to collect and process all the runoff water from rain and melting snow that occurs at the site. This spring posed a tough challenge for that, with heavily-saturated soils from the wet fall and a quick snowmelt this spring.

"That gave us a lot of water into our system that we have to process," he said. "That's currently the water that we're dealing with that has the highest potential for odor."

Mother Nature has much of the control in this, and at times it simply overloads the plant's capacity to quickly process this water. A pond that was processing some of this stormwater is what caused this weekend's big stink, he said.

The process is complicated, he said, and is much like a city handles its wastewater treatment. The plant's water is "very high strength," though, because of the large amount of organic material in the water that bacteria can eat.

Still, Kennedy said this summer will likely be an improvement over some recent years' odor levels. "We're still optimistic that we can contain odors most of the time yet this year, but we can't guarantee that we can cover it all the time," he said. "There are just so many variables that we have to deal with that sometimes you don't see it coming."

For all the residents who pinched their noses to get through the weekend, Kennedy had a message about American Crystal's ongoing efforts to make things better. "We're trying."

Reach Johnson at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to .

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