DEQ: Michigan Sugar waste-handling practices going under microscope

Michigan Sugar, SebewaingThe Michigan Department of Environmental Quality will evaluate Michigan Sugar Co.’s company-wide waste-handling practices, following a massive Sebewaing River fish kill earlier this week linked to waste from its Sebewaing plant.

Charles Bauer, Saginaw Bay District Supervisor – Water Quality Unit, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, told The Advertiser that the state will take the course of action as a result of this week’s Sebewaing incident and other recent violations. The violations within the last two years identified problems in Bay City, Croswell, near Reese, and in Sebewaing – where the company received a violation in 2014 for issues related to stormwater management, the source identified by DEQ officials as origin of this week’s Sebewaing disaster.

“Once we get done with our immediate work at the Sebewaing site we will be evaluating how to address these issues with the company,” Bauer told The Advertiser.

When asked for more detail, Bauer said “as a standard practice we do not discuss ongoing enforcement negotiations or potential enforcement actions.”

In a statement to The Advertiser about the pending DEQ evaluations, Ray Van Driessche, director of community and government relations, wrote:

“Michigan Sugar prides ourselves on being a good neighbor, a strong partner and a leading employer in every community we call home. Michigan Sugar has invested millions of dollars in technology and improvements designed to minimize any environmental impact within the communities we serve. 

“In addition, Michigan Sugar works quickly to take corrective action when a problem is identified by our team of experts on the ground. We work with the DEQ in the same way that we work with many government agencies – with a focus on collaboration and transparency to ensure that we’re good stewards and a strong economic engine for the region.”

Bauer said such evaluations will take place after addressing immediate concerns in Sebewaing – where thousands of fish are believed to have been killed earlier this week as a result of organic waste from Michigan Sugar traveling through a storm sewer and into the Sebewaing River, where it essentially sucked all of the dissolved oxygen out of the water.

DEQ officials confirmed to The Advertiser that a violation notice for Michigan Sugar for the incident is forthcoming.

“Everything’s dead, there are no fish in there at all,” said Matthew Cummings, operator of the Sebewaing Harbor Marina.


 Sebewaing River Spill

Cummings said this is supposed to be a busy time of the year – when perch make an annual run for about two months up the Sebewaing River from Saginaw Bay, chasing minnows.

Not this year, though.

Cummings was among those who called the DEQ to report a large amount of dead and dying fish in the marina. In addition to perch, other species spotted dead or dying were gizzard shad, pike, catfish, minnows, and more.

Cummings leases the marina from the state of Michigan per a 40-year lease that began three years ago. The marina includes more than 100 boat slips and it also makes money by charging fishermen a few bucks to cast a line from the docks.

He also built the Sebewaing River Campground across the river.

“They’re calling it the ‘urine campground’ now,” he said.

As of Wednesday, Cummings said he was not allowing anyone to fish in the marina – including the many locals who walk or bike there to do so.

“We’re sending all the business away,” he said.

And even when things get better, Cummings said he is embracing for the worst.

“It’s the public perception,” he said. “I think people are going to shy away from it.

“Do you want to fish where there are a lot of dead fish?”

Still, Cummings said Sebewaing Harbor Marina will come back around.

Aerial view of where the Sebewaing River meets Saginaw Bay (Oct. 12, 2016) (Photo by Zac Deering)
Aerial view of where the Sebewaing River meets Saginaw Bay (Oct. 12, 2016) (Photo by Zac Deering)

“We’re going to have to spend a lot of money going back out to shows and stuff, and telling people this is a great community,” Cummings said. “It’s a beautiful community, but we kind of smell right now.”

Nearby, DEQ officials explained to The Advertiser what happened.

“This is some organic biodegradable material,” said Bob Lehmann, DEQ environmental analyst.  “When it gets into the water, it’s going to continue biodegrading and that process takes the dissolved oxygen out of the water. “

Lehmann said the DEQ had tested the oxygen levels and determined it was 0.4 milligrams per liter, dramatically lower than what fish need to survive.

“Fish need 4 or 5 milligrams per liter,” Lehmann told The Advertiser. “We had a whole bunch of struggling fish here (Tuesday) and dead fish. Right now you don’t see too many because we’ve also had hundreds of seagulls harvesting the dead fish.

“But the water is still very low in dissolved oxygen.”

The problem came to light for the DEQ first thing Monday.

“We’ve had a lot of complaints,” Lehmann said. “I don’t know if you’ve been in town…it smells. And this river smells and people are just very worried about it, understandably.”

Lehmann said the DEQ responded immediately and discovered the source of the problem in a storm sewer that empties into the Sebewaing River near the busy M-25 bridge. Officials opened the manholes to the drain all along M-25 Tuesday and found “foam, filthy water, stench, very low dissolved oxygen.”

To get the water out, he said, cleanup crews were pumping water into the drain and sucking everything out. He added that they were racing to get the job done before forecasted rain for Wednesday evening, fearing that a big rain could send more of the material into the river.

“(Michigan Sugar) had a storm sewer that they didn’t realize was connected to the city’s storm sewer system,” said Thomas McDowell, senior environmental engineer, MDEQ – Saginaw Bay District. (See video for additional coverage of the Sebewaing River spill. Story continues below video)

“When it rained or got wet, the organic material would get into that storm sewer system and just ferment in there basically until another huge rain…just moved it out,” McDowell said.

However, McDowell said it’s unclear when the material entered the Sebewaing River because there hadn’t been any kind of rain event in the days leading up to the disaster.

 On Wednesday, McDowell said he and other DEQ officials were in town continually checking dissolved oxygen levels in the Sebewaing River and overseeing “the remediation that Michigan Sugar’s doing.”

“Then we’re going to go over to the plant, and we’re going to look at their stormwater prevention plan to make sure it’s up to date and that they’re doing the things that they need to do and also help correct the situation so it doesn’t happen again,” McDowell said.

McDowell confirmed that Michigan Sugar would be on the hook financially for all related cleanup costs.

Still, as of late Friday, Michigan Sugar says it remains uncertain about the cause

“Michigan Sugar quickly deployed experts and dedicated significant resources this week to help determine the cause of the release, and minimize environmental impact,” Van Driessche wrote.

“While the DEQ has reportedly stated that the Michigan Sugar facility is the source of the release, Michigan Sugar believes that there are other potential sources, and is conducting an ongoing investigation. We believe it is premature for the DEQ to have concluded at this time that Michigan Sugar was the source of the impacts in the river.”

McDowell, however, told The Advertiser that Michigan Sugar will receive a violation notice – the most recent of a number the organization has received recently.


Previous violations

Bay City-based Michigan Sugar Co. is a cooperative that has an integral role in and around Michigan’s Thumb region.

The cooperative employs about 900 year-round, a number that goes up to more than 1,400 during harvest season (currently underway).

It’s owned by sugar beet growers and produces sugar sold under the brand names of Pioneer and Big Chief that are produced at plants in Bay City, Caro, Sebewaing, and Croswell.

The Bay City, Sebewaing, and Croswell plants were built around 1900. The Caro plant (technically located in Indianfields Township) is called the “oldest working factory” on Michigan Sugar’s website, and was built in 1889.

Michigan Sugar has been on a roll lately, too.

In December 2015, the company announced plans to invest $125 million updating its various operations.

In February, Michigan Sugar announced it had acquired Taylor-based AmCane Sugar L.L.C., a sugar refiner and specialty sugar manufacturer. Terms of the deal were withheld, but Michigan Sugar said it would add $60 million in revenue for the company.

In May, Michigan Sugar moved into new corporate headquarters in Bay City.

And it all came after a record-breaking harvest of sugar beets – about 5 million tons, or 31.6 tons an acre in 2015.

But as McDowell explained to The Advertiser earlier this year, with high yields comes a high amount of waste.

The biggest source is wastewater that consists of a mixture of water from beet processing along with a slurry of lime and coal ash. Site stormwater also is supposed to be in the mix, McDowell said. (See a video from earlier this year that shows what’s happens inside Michigan Sugar’s Sebewaing plant. Story continues below video.)

At processing facilities, Michigan Sugar has waste ponds, usually referred to as “lagoons,” where wastewater is routed for treatment in what is called known as “plain clarification,” or more commonly, sedimentation. At the  Caro plant, the wastewater moves across the Cass River via a large pipe suspended above the water.

The wastewater sits out in the open as the heavy organics float to the bottom of the ponds, essentially using the same treatment method it did in the early 1900s.

Van Driessche said in July the sediment “is essentially topsoil washed off the beets with some organic material. The sediment is not a waste material but rather topsoil which is reapplied in most cases to farmland from which it came.”

Each facility has a permit to discharge a certain amount of the wastewater that has gone through a number of treatment steps into nearby bodies of water, which are often within feet of the lagoons. With the exception of infrequent tests by the DEQ, Michigan Sugar must self-monitor discharges from the wastewater ponds and provide the info to the DEQ.

At its Caro plant, Michigan Sugar’s permit allows it to discharge up to 11,520 gallons per day (4.2 million gallons a year) into the Cass River from “areas located in Indian Fields (sic) Township.”

“All water leaving our facility is consistently and rigorously tested,” VanDriessche told The Advertiser. “Because the water used for beet processing contains dirt from the beets and other organic material, it is stored in ponds as part of the treatment process to ensure that all water leaving our facility meets or exceeds all legal standards. This is also part of our commitment to being good stewards of Michigan’s environment.”

But DEQ records show Michigan Sugar appears to have trouble making sure wastewater ends up where it should at times.

Last September, the DEQ issued violations to Michigan Sugar for “unlawful release of waste water from the treatment lagoons associated with Michigan Sugar Co.” at its Bay City processing operation.

Among other things, Michigan Sugar was cited for “improper maintenance and operation of the treatment lagoons,” failing to report the release, and water in a nearby drain and ponding waters on an adjacent neighbor’s property that contained “unnatural turbidity and color.”

“Fecal and e-coli samples taken…had bacterial colony counts of greater than 10,000 per 100 ml,” according to DEQ documents.

“These recent violations will be included as part of the ongoing escalated enforcement action and resolution of these issues will be sought through this process,” McDowell wrote in a letter to Michigan Sugar.

At Croswell, Michigan Sugar received a violation notice in May 2014 for not sending its monitoring reports in on time and after the DEQ received a complaint about odor from the ponds. Michigan Sugar, currently spending more than $55 million to upgrade its Croswell plant, vowed to implement a “computerized reminder system” so it would report on time.

In April of this year, Michigan Sugar was notified of a complaint DEQ received pertaining to water in a ditch near one of the company’s piling grounds at 181 N. Gera Road, Reese. Water runoff was making its way to roadside ditches from a pond near the piles, and DEQ said the “discharge from the pond was dark in color and had a bad smell.”

Further testing found downstream dissolved oxygen levels lowered – just like in Sebewaing this week – and Michigan Sugar was notified it is “causing a violation of water quality standards.” Michigan Sugar took corrective actions, but denied being the sole party responsible.

And problems at Michigan Sugar’s Sebewaing plant – where the problems occurred this past week – are not new, either.

The DEQ sent the company a violation notice on May 7, 2014.

It included two violations.

The first was for 43 instances of self-monitoring discharge reports being filed late since 2010.

The second?

“Michigan Sugar Co. was required to review their Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP) on or before September 1, 2013. The failure to complete this annual review by the due date is a violation of your permit,” the violation reads.

The violation also refers to some kind of spill.

“Additionally the SWPPP must be updated or amended whenever a spill that has the potential to increase the exposure of significant materials to stormwater occurs. The molasses spill due to the overfilling of a tank went to a nearby stormwater ditch. This should have resulted in the modification of your SWPPP to incorporate this as a potential area for additional stormwater controls.”


Moving forward

As of press time, the DEQ investigation was underway. So is Michigan Sugar’s own.

It’s unclear what will happen in the immediate future for the Sebewaing River.

Sebewaing Marina’s Matthew Cummings said he went to Michigan Sugar seeking some kind of assistance with what he expects will be thousands of fish floating to the surface during what is supposed to be one of the marina’s busiest times of year.

“They’re great people. They’re our major employer,” Cummings said. “But I believe if they did cause the problem, they should at least step to the plate.”

Others who use and rely on the marina also are hopeful for a solution to the end of what quickly became a nightmare for the community.

Wes Alexander, manager of a bait shop at the marina, said the whole thing made him feel “pretty disgusted.”

“Our whole business thrive on fishing and as you can see, there’s no fishing going on,” he said.

Alexander said now through November is when minnows move up the Sebewaing River and the perch follow.

“Usually you can sit out there and watch the fish jump all day,” he said.

“There ain’t nothing out there jumping now.”

Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at [email protected]


What’s your Reaction?