Letter from the Editor

Thursday, September 18, 2003

Careful with treatment lagoons

The Sara Lee company took a bunch of local officials all the way to Virginia to show off a wastewater treatment facility like the one that has been discussed for the plant to develop at Storm Lake, an according to those who took them up on the trip, the system does seem to work.

Yet Storm Lake should have real concerns about such a project, and they should be answered before a project becomes any closer to reality.

At the top of the list is whether we want to see wastewater lagoons dug into a proposed site that is, according to officials, well within the watershed of the lake we have worked so hard to preserve these past few years. If a private wastewater site is needed, perhaps it should be located near the existing municipal wastewater development and landfill area.

Second, we should take a close look at the financial impact. If one of the city's two major industries takes its wastewater business away from the municipal plant, will that leave residential users to pay higher water/sewer bills to make up the difference?

Third, what happens if, goodness forbid, an industry would close in Storm Lake and leave behind wastewater lagoons for the public to have to deal with for years down the line?

Fourth, is there a possibility that we all could be better served if the Sara Lee funds were instead channeled into helping the city to expand its existing capacity at the municipal wastewater treatment facility that we all depend on. I'm told that it is near capacity for what can be accepted from Sara Lee's Bil-Mar output, which could in turn hinder growth for the company's product output.

By all accounts, the site in Virginia looks good, and doesn't smell bad. And there are DNR requirements yet to be met before such a project could be built here.

There need be no adversarial situation here. Bil-Mar is a good company and its success translates into good things for Storm Lake. The designer of the wastewater treatment system too is as well-meaning as they come, and I have no reason not to believe in the statements that come from those corners.

Still, the questions should be asked now, not after the wastewater in being pumped into new pits, and the resulting waste product with nitrates and phosphorus being applied to surrounding land.

No matter how good the system, no one can tell you that it isn't also true that errors happen, disasters happen, leaks and spills and breaks and floods and accidents do happen. That is the reality any time we deal with environmentally sensitive material. If this private site is located far from the municipal plant, and that city plant not expanded in capacity, what happens if there is a problem at the Bil-Mar wastewater system. Could we rely on a smooth turnover of material to the city plant, and could it handle the sudden influx without risking problems of its own?

While it may make good economic sense for the industry to use its own system instead of the cost of pretreating plus the cost of running its wastewater through the city plant, there are also risks to taking on responsibility and liability for a private wastewater facility. Iowa monitors such sites very closely, and if fines are ever warranted, they can be very costly both in terms of dollars, downtime and image.

All this is not to say that Sara Lee/Bil-Mar should not have its wastewater facility, or that we should assume it could result in problems. It's just that now is the time to ask our questions and look at all of our alternatives.

We trust the company, the city, county environmental officials, the DNR, their respective engineers and experts, will all be able to come to the table and work out a system that will allow the company the growth it deserves, the city the wastewater capacity and revenue streams it needs - and most importantly, the people the comfort level they demand in environmental protection.