TWIN FALLS — A Sept. 21 CNN news report exposed that 90 percent of the drinking water sampled across the U.S. contains chromium-6, the so-called “Erin Brockovich chemical” made famous by Hollywood’s depiction of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s contamination of the Hinkley, Calif., water supply.
Chromium-6, a carcinogenic chemical, is rare in nature but is produced by industrial processes. The most significant source of the chemical is coal ash from the nation’s coal-burning power plants. But another source of chromium-6 is the ash produced by burning coal to heat water in processing sugar beets.
Amalgamated Sugar Co. last year converted its Paul and Nampa plants from burning coal to burning natural gas. The Twin Falls plant uses both natural gas and coal.
“Through technological advances, Amalgamated Sugar has improved and continues to improve the overall energy efficiency of its operations,” said John McCreedy, the sugar company’s CEO. “Facilities have also increased the use of cleaner fuels. As a result, our greenhouse gas emissions have decreased significantly.”
Amalgamated’s factories now use 29 percent less fossil fuel energy than 20 years ago and produce 49 percent less greenhouse gasses and 75 percent less emissions, McCreedy said.
After converting the Paul plant to natural gas, Amalgamated removed the ash pond and filled in the clay-lined lagoon, said Michael Brown, drinking water and engineering manager at the Department of Environmental Quality in Twin Falls.
Amalgamated’s Twin Falls plant is currently renewing its “reuse” permit which allows it to recycle its treated wastewater for irrigation, said J.J. Fenton, reuse coordinator with the DEQ in Twin Falls. The department inspects the plant annually and rewrites permits every five years.
Some industrial plants’ reuse permits require testing for total chromium, but Amalgamated’s permit does not, Fenton said. In the future — if the need arises — the department could require chromium monitoring.
Amalgamated’s remaining ash pile is addressed in its solids management plan.
Both the Nampa and Paul plants last used coal in March 2015, Amalgamated spokeswoman Jessica McAnally said. The company is working to remove the coal-firing equipment as well as the ash pile at the Nampa plant.
“Preserving the environment, being good neighbors and dedicated stewards of the land is of highest importance to our company and our grower-members,” McCreedy said, adding that Amalgamated is proud of its environmental improvements on the farm and in the factory and committed to regulatory compliance.