For years, Waseca County residents have been told that the stench from Birds Eye’s wastewater system is the smell of money being made. But it’s still too much for some residents’ nostrils.
On Sept. 21, Plant Manager Ralph Castro assured the Waseca County Board of Commissioners that the team is working to improve the situation. With Birds Eye having chosen to stay in Waseca County, rather than move operations elsewhere, Castro started by emphasizing his team’s commitment to “being good corporate citizens.” They are all excited, he said, for the $250 million “big beautiful facility” being built on 360th Avenue, south of the former Quad Graphics building. They plan to commission the new vegetable processing facility spring 2022, he said, leaving “the 95-year-old building with all the memories we had there.”
The reason for Castro’s appearance, though, was that county staff had been receiving complaints from Waseca County landowners of a foul odor coming from Birds Eye’s wastewater facility. As a response, county staff invited Castro and his team to give them an update on strategies being implemented to tackle the smell.
“They had millions of dollars going into a study to try to make some real improvements,” Johnson said. “So (it’s) trying to educate the board on what those initiatives are that Conagra is doing, if that’ll change an existing facility versus the next facility or not.”
Johnson added that he assumed Birds Eye would continue implementing the same strategies that it would have had the facility not changed locations.
One of the ways Birds Eye is tackling the odor in Waseca County, Castro said, is installing a new screen house system, which could remove more of the organic solid produced as byproducts during vegetable processing. Those byproducts, especially on warmer days with the wind blowing from the direction of the wastewater system into town, produce an odor as they dissolve. Additionally, the company has implemented a new chemical control system, using hydrogen peroxide and other chemicals to reduce odor-causing compounds like hydrogen sulfide.
Asked by Commissioner DeAnne Malterer about the timeline for these improvements, Todd Boehne, director of environmental management at the Birds Eye facility, said that the new screen house will arrive and be installed before the new plant begins activity.
The other thing Birds Eye has done, Castro said, is upgrade the aeration units used to “stir up” the wastewater “holding ponds,” and to break down more of the odor-producing solids so they can then be land applied.
“I’m never gonna say there’s not gonna be an odor from a wastewater system,” Boehne said, “but the idea is to enhance our aeration and the oxidation of the organics that come through our processing, which would remove the ability of the system to generate the odors.”
Mark Leiferman, planning and zoning administrator for Waseca County, said after the Board of Commissioners meeting that he felt that Birds Eye was taking pains to bring their facilities into compliance with odor issues.
“I think that they believe that everything they’re doing incrementally helps solve the problem,” Leiferman said. “They’ve invested large sums of money in acquiring additional spray field areas and the plant itself, and spent a lot of money on engineering fees to accomplish that … it’s just a fairly big plant, and it’s got a lot of complications to it.”
The best thing Birds Eye could do, he said, is move its wastewater spray fields further from the city, though he acknowledged that would merely displace the impact of the odor from inhabitants of the city of Waseca onto whatever area in the county the fields were moved to.
“The distance is the cure for most odor issues,” Leiferman said.
“It’s a big project, it’s a lot of work, and we’re not done yet,” Castro said. “We still have more work to do, but as the season ends, the odors go away. But our goal is to continue to improve.”
After giving an update and fielding questions on the odor, Castro added that Birds Eye staff are looking to see about 30% growth in local production over the next three to four years as a result of transitioning over to the new facility. The result of that growth and keeping operations local, he said, would be keeping jobs in the community, and not having to buy as much produce from across the country or beyond when it’s grown within a 50-mile radius.