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News & Features
Warming of Root River a Concern
By Art Hughes
May 12, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

One in a series of reports about Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issues

Fishing enthusiasts are monitoring construction of an ethanol plant in the southeastern Minnesota town of Preston. Officials with the volunteer recreation group Trout Unlimited worry about possible damage to the nearby Root River - one of the state's premier trout streams. They charge the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency with lax permit enforcement and failure to recognize the Root as a valuable resource.

THE SOUTH BRANCH OF THE ROOT RIVER starts essentially as a drainage ditch in Mower County. From there it builds into a wide, slow-moving, warm-water river, common in most parts of Minnesota. But then, near Forestville State Park, the river literally disappears - sucked underground into a network of Swiss cheese-like holes typical in southeastern Minnesota. By the time it resurfaces the water is a cool 48 degrees, a perfect temperature for brown trout and even the sensitive brook trout. The colder the water, the more oxygen it holds to help the fish thrive. Earlier this year Sports Afield magazine said the Root River Valley has some of the best wild trout fishing in the country. But state Trout Unlimited chairman Elliot Olson says the Root is threatened.

Olson: I have become in the last few years very disheartened that we have such a great heritage here, and everybody takes it for granted. And I see it being lost.
Olson is worried about a new ethanol plant under construction near Preston. The Southeast Minnesota Ethanol Cooperative will take more than 5 million bushels of corn a year from local farmers and make ethanol to add to gasoline. In the process the plant will empty more than 90,000 gallons of steaming wastewater into Preston's sewage treatment plant every day. Another similar amount will flow into holding basins maintained by the plant. Olson has concerns about both waste streams. But it's the water from the treatment plant that will ultimately flow into the Root River. Olson says the plant went up before officials even knew if the effluent would increase the water's river temperature. He also says the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) allowed construction without an important waste water permit.
Olson: You don't know if it's going to be harmful or not. You don't know if it's going to be constructed in a manner in which they're doing it. What they're saying is it's better to ask forgiveness than permission. We build this and put millions of dollars into this plant and then we'll say who in the state legislature, who in the governor's office, has the guts to stop us now that we've put all this money into it.
MPCA officials admit the agency's interpretation of the permit law is less strict than that of Trout Unlimited. Elliot Olson says no part of the plant should have been built until all permits had been issued. Despite those concerns, the co-op's gleaming steel silos are already a fixture on the north side of town.

MPCA Regional Supervisor David Kortan says the agency is confident the discharge to the holding basin will ultimately comply with state laws that control toxics and flow volume.

Kortan: They could add more wastewater treatment if we felt it was necessary. There is nothing has happened that there could not be something added - a treatment unit added or whatever that could easily take care of any concerns a party might have in this case.
Since Trout Unlimited raised concerns, the MPCA looked into possible temperature increases. Kortan says people are overstating the threat. The agency maintains once the 100-degree effluent from the plant mixes with the rest of the city's waste and moves through the treatment process any temperature increase threat will be insignificant.
Kortan: We do not believe that the half-degree rise - in the winter especially - is a cause of concern for the receiving waters.
Representatives with Trout Unlimited are not taking the MPCA's word for it. They point out while the MPCA requires temperature monitoring of discharged water, the agency does not list any specific maximum temperature. In addition, the MPCA and the city have to rely on data supplied by the ethanol plant itself.

John Hunt is a Minneapolis environmental engineer and is volunteering his expertise to Trout Unlimited. He says water temperature fluctuations are hard to calculate, and a trout stream needs to be ideal for trout every day. Any significant increase would create an uninhabitable stretch of river downstream of the Preston treatment plant. And, he says, this may only be the beginning of industrial development in the region.

Hunt: If this is a situation where there will be future permits in the watershed, then, one by one, if this type of discharge is deemed suitable use of the resource, it may be that the stream will die a slow death as opposed to a quick death.
The new ethanol plant in Preston is the kind of development many cities are seeking. A state-of-the art facility that adds value to local farmers crops. The economics seem sound. The concern on the part of some environmental watchdogs is whether the environment will pay a price. Trout Unlimited is getting legal help from the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. MCEA is considering a suit against the plant for the violating the permit rules. Senior attorney Mark Ten Eyck says even preparing the site for construction before the permit is issued is against state law.
Ten Eyck: Environmental groups are having to be a shadow agency, where the agency is not doing its job. The agency seems to be acting as a referee, just tossing up the ball, issuing whatever permit the industry or the city proposes. And if the environmental groups don't show up to do the job the agency used to do, it just doesn't get done.
Representatives from Trout Unlimited wonder if Preston is an example of situations around the region that have gone undetected. MPCA officials insist the plant has all the permits it needs so far and point out it will be the city of Preston's responsibility to monitor discharge from the sewage treatment plant to the Root River.