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Red River Biorefinery hit with $40k fine for environmental violations

The incident is detailed in documents on file with the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality, which were obtained this week by the Herald via open records request.

Red River biorefinery.jpg
Red River Biorefinery is an ethanol and alcohol plant located near Gateway Drive in Grand Forks.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS — North Dakota environmental regulators gave a major Grand Forks agribusiness a nearly $40,000 fine late last year for multiple violations, state records show — with another $200,000 in fines ready to snap into place if the facility doesn’t comply with state-mandated changes.

And it’s not yet clear, state officials said, if an even more recent issue with the plant’s handling of its product could bring about more penalties. It’s the latest development for a facility that’s made itself a headache for city and state regulators multiple times since beginning operations two years ago. It also comes as multiple city leaders say the plant has suspended at least a portion of its production to focus on compliance.

That facility, Red River Biorefinery, is one of Grand Forks’ most recent additions to its north-end heavy industry neighborhood. State and refinery documents lay out a key problem: a refinery “discharge valve” appears to have failed in the early spring of 2021, letting industrial waste into the city stormwater system — which drains into the English Coulee.

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“What we had found through the inspection was that wastewater was being introduced into (stormwater) ponds,” said Diana Trussell, solid waste program manager with the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. “So they were no longer stormwater ponds. And that would have required a permit to have, or a surface impoundment.”

The incident is detailed in documents on file with the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality, which were obtained this week by the Herald via open records request. They also describe the state’s accusation that Red River Biorefinery provided byproducts for agricultural use without the right state approvals in place.

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Under a deal with the state, the biorefinery pays a $39,223 fine, with another $200,000 waived so long as the biorefinery moved into compliance with state regulations.

“The facility is actively working with the agency to resolve all the issues that were identified. … Also, they’ve hired a consultant who’s helping them through that process,” Trussell said. “The ultimate goal of this and with any enforcement action is to get back into compliance. It’s just not an overnight process.”

Melanie Parvey, water works director for Grand Forks, said it’s not clear how much waste made it to the English Coulee, but she said it’s not enough to pose a health hazard for local residents or wildlife. Still, Parvey added, Red River Biorefinery has been barred from discharging into the city’s stormwater system until it demonstrates that its discharges are sufficiently clean.

“We have a ‘compliance schedule,’ is what we call it,” Parvey said. “(For example) in order to do this, you need to do this. And so we haven't received anything from them yet that makes us comfortable with them still being connected.”

Keshav Rajpal, a senior official overseeing Red River Biorefinery, confirmed in an email the “unplanned” discharges were the result of a “mechanical failure” at the plant.

“The facility immediately implemented additional measures to prevent further unplanned discharge of stormwater while also making plans for mechanical improvements,” he said. Rajpal added that the refinery is working with the state to make sure its “coproducts” are managed properly.

Rough history

The plant, which opened in 2020, was touted as an innovative bio-ethanol refinery, turning local ag waste into ethanol. But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic quickly scrambled markets and travel plans. In a 2020 letter to City Hall, one of the plant leaders explained that the refinery had purchased pea starch for use in its processes, and was pivoting away from ethanol fuel and toward hand sanitizer-grade products (their website now lists both as products, along with animal feed and renewable natural gas). Travel restrictions delayed a shipment of equipment to the new facility.

Grand Forks residents already know part of this story by smell. During the first summer of the plant’s operations, the plant had unusually strong wastewater discharges, which have flowed into city processing systems, such as its open-air wastewater lagoons. The result was an unpleasant odor throughout portions of Grand Forks during the summer of 2020.

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RELATED: Odor in Grand Forks could be biorefinery waste, city official says

Red River Biorefinery ran up a total of $1.33 million in fees for its wastewater discharges in 2020. The City Council decided to levy about $588,000 of those in October 2020. The facility was put on a payment plan to cover that sum, plus interest and other city service fees, but briefly fell behind on payments — earning about $56,000 in late fees to the city by the end of August 2021.

The bill, including penalties, was fully paid last year, City Finance Director Maureen Storstad said, and a subsequent payment plan for city services levied this September was paid off early.

Another issue with the refinery arose in January 2021. City leaders suspended “load parameters” for the plant’s wastewater after “a bad batch of biomass,” the Herald reported early last year.

“Company staff are working to replace the problematic biomass,” the Herald reported at the time, “and estimate that it will take about 10 weeks to return the amount of pollutants and suspended solids the plant sends to the city’s water treatment plant to the levels outlined in its industrial use permit.”

In the wake of recent waste issues at the refinery, Parvey, the city water works official, added that facility leaders recently informed the city that they had recently shifted the refinery’s focus to compliance — buying equipment that will help with wastewater treatment and focusing on a cleaner environmental impact.

“They had just mentioned that they … were through with the alcohol as of March 15,” she said. “So, no longer producing, but operating and, and working through a cleaning and recommissioning (phase).”

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Cease and desist

Most recently, the Department of Environmental quality wrote a cease-and-desist letter to the refinery in late December to ask it to stop what it described as “dumping of wastewater in a gravel pit … in Grace Township in Grand Forks County.”

The letter said the department was told by a refinery official that it sells “wastewater” to a third party that disposes of it. But neither the refinery nor the third party, the letter said, have the permits for that.

Trussell said she couldn’t discuss that matter right now, as it’s still an unresolved “enforcement action.” She said whatever impact it might have on Red River Biorefinery’s previous suspended fine of $200,000, if any, won’t be fully clear until that changes.

Rajpal, in his response to the Herald, did not directly address the cease-and-desist letter.

Related Topics: CITY OF GRAND FORKS
Sam Easter is a freelance reporter who has been a regular contributor to the Herald since 2019. He covers a variety of topics, including government and politics.

In 2015, he joined the Herald’s staff as City Hall reporter, covering North Dakota politics at all levels and conducting Herald investigations through early 2018, when he began his freelancing career.

Easter can be reached at samkweaster@gmail.com or via Twitter via @samkweaster.
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