WildEarth Guardians lawsuit charges Western Sugar with polluting the South Platte

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WildEarth Guardians probably wouldn't advise you to take a family day trip to the South Platte River anytime soon.

The grassroots environmental group is accusing a sugar-processing mill of illegally dumping harmful pollutants into the river.

Western Sugar Cooperative has been operating in Fort Morgan, Colorado, since the 1970s. On May 29, WildEarth filed a complaint against the facility for allegedly dumping pollutants in numbers way over the legal limit.

The lawsuit maintains that polluted wastewater from Western Sugar's facility is discharged into unlined ponds next to the river and a local park often visited by Fort Morgan residents. It also argues that the Western Sugar facility has been violating permitted dumping limits for pH, plus concentrations of fecal coliform and biochemical oxygen demand (BOD). These pollutants can be harmful to the environment and to people.

Note that pH is a measure of acidity, which affects most biological processes in water. On a pH scale, 1 is very acidic and 10 is very basic. Anything outside a narrow range can stress the river ecosystem. A daily max of 9 on the scale is allowed for Western Sugar dumping, with a daily minimum of 6.5, the lawsuit says. However, the complaint cites self-reported data showing that Western Sugar reported a 10 on the pH scale in reports from March to September of 2012 -- and December reports are said to show the same.

Fecal coliform is bacteria associated with human waste. High levels of fecal coliform can indicate a higher risk of pathogens in the water. The permit given to Western Sugar by the state limits a daily maximum of 400 colonies of fecal coliform per 100 milliliters of water, the complaint states, yet Western Sugar had a reported discharge of 37,724 colonies on March 31, 2012 -- nearly 100 times over the limit. The most recent test, from January, topped million colonies.

The pattern follows with BOD as well, the lawsuit argues. BOD is the amount of dissolved oxygen needed by aerobic (relating to, involving, or requiring free oxygen) organisms in a body of water to break down organic material; it's the most important limit for making sure fish and other organisms that live in the river have enough oxygen to survive.

The complaint notes Western Sugar's discharge maximum as 4,950 pounds a day. In January, reported discharge was 44,476 pounds.

"We [WildEarth Guardians] filed our notice against Western Sugar in October of last year, and have had several conversations with them as to whether or not they would be willing to bring the facility into compliance sooner or later," says Jen Pelz, wild rivers program director at WildEarth Guardians. "Discussions broke down, so we filed a complaint."

Pelz says her group would be willing to keep talking with Western Sugar, but she believes they've reached an impasse.

In April of 2011, the Water Quality Control Division, within the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, issued a compliance order to Western Sugar. The order was for the sugar cooperative to "set deadlines for the company to make capital improvements necessary for improved water quality," said Meghan Trubee, the communications liaison for the Water Quality Control Division.

The order set a schedule for the company to take measures, like installing new equipment, aimed at reducing the pollutants from the water it discharges into the river. This schedule is known as the Wastewater System Treatment plan. By July 1 of this year, the Order states that Western Sugar will proceed with the plan, created by the facility and the Division, to bring their pollutant numbers to the standard.

By December of 2016, "Western Sugar shall provide written notification to the Division stating that the Wastewater Treatment System is in operation and functioning as designed, and the Facility is consistently producing effluent that is in compliance with the fecal coliform and BOD5 effluent limits." Basically, the facility has two more work seasons before the plan created with the Division, to bring pollutant numbers to legal levels, must be working and in place.

According to a news release from Western Sugar, the company believes that the allegations are without merit. The cooperative says that there is no indication that their operations have impacted the river or the park adjacent to it. The company plans on defending itself against the case.

Here's the lawsuit:

WildEarth Guardians v. Western Sugar Cooperative

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