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WCMA Notes: Collaborating on Environmental Gains

A Guest Column Offered by John Umhoefer, WCMA Executive Director

Right now in Wisconsin, a dairy plant is engineering a cooling system for wastewater that will cost at least hundreds of thousands of dollars, because our state DNR insists this treated water is a few degrees too warm, because this dairy plant’s wastewater treatment system, mandated by DNR, naturally warms as it treats wastewater, because DNR ruled that the manmade ditch that receives this treated water is a natural stream.

It’s no wonder Americans wanted a President who would reduce government regulation.

Here’s a bit of added irony: this dairy plant’s anaerobic treatment system makes free, green electricity, but a new system to cool the treated water before it empties into the ditch would require more fossil-fuel energy than the green energy produced.

This week, the dairy and food industries in Wisconsin met with the state’s Department of Natural Resources to discuss a myriad of environmental issues – issues these food manufacturers describe as their largest barrier to growth.

The meeting happened against a backdrop of seismic change in Washington, and unsettled times in Madison, Wisconsin, as state legislators mull DNR budget reductions and a bill to split-up Wisconsin’s DNR into separate recreational and environmental agencies.

Despite concerns with growing regulation, industry wastewater experts and DNR staff have forged strong communication ties and growing trust in recent years.  And this week’s joint meeting to review environmental regulations included more than one piece of good news.

The first good news: Wisconsin’s proposal for a statewide variance for phosphorus limits in wastewater was approved by February 6 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – 14 months after the federal agency received the request and three years after the Wisconsin legislature mandated a variance in state law.

What does this mean for regulated plants?  It means Wisconsin dairy processors, paper mills and communities can seek a variance from new, low phosphorus limits in wastewater that the state has estimated would cost $7 billion to achieve. The variance doesn’t change the low standards – such as reaching 0.075 ppm phosphorus in treated wastewater discharged to streams – it delays them, and funds on-farm phosphorus abatement.

Through a relatively painless and low-cost process, companies can seek this temporary protection from standards that could threaten the viability of small to medium-sized cheese factories that face millions of dollars in costs to remove tiny amounts of phosphorus in their wastewater.  (Dairy plants in Wisconsin already remove 98 percent of phosphorus daily.)

Processors use aerobic and anaerobic systems, followed by filters or centrifuges to remove phosphorus, energy and nutrients from their wastewater.  Heat generated by these systems runs afoul of DNR limits on the temperature of water entering streams, and like the example noted above, cooling this treated water can run up six- or seven-figure costs.

At this week’s meeting, DNR staff listed pathways to meeting these “thermal limits,” such as reassessing the volume of water in streams, or studying how effectively the treated water mixes with the receiving streams.  More volume or more mixing means a stream can handle more heat.  But dairy processors are finding that these options sometimes fail to provide a green light for their warm wastewater, and expensive cooling towers, ponds and chillers are then required.

But this week’s meeting between industry and state regulators included positive news on another front. A three-year research study, co-funded by Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, Midwest Food Products Association and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is yielding new science on the effectiveness of natural nitrogen elimination in wastewater that is land-applied at soil treatment sites.

The first year of research proved promising: soil microbes in these field trials are performing as the textbooks predict – taking up nitrogen from wastewater and releasing into the air. Nitrogen is our atmosphere’s most common element. This research, when complete, will define how cover crops and microbes utilize nitrogen and stop it from entering groundwater.

Complex and costly regulation remains a barrier to dairy growth, but cooperative efforts in phosphorus and nitrogen removal, and growing dialogue between DNR and industry engineers, promises a future for dairy growth and a clean environment in Wisconsin.