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EPA, Simplot Reach Deal

by John O'Connell
Idaho State Journal, January 27, 2010

The pollution costs of cement production

(Joe Kline) J.R. Simplot's the company's local Don Plant leaches 1,200 pounds of phosphorus per day into the Portneuf River. POCATELLO -- The J.R. Simplot Co. and the Environmental Protection Agency have reached a cleanup agreement that should dramatically reduce the estimated 1,200 pounds of phosphorus per day the company's local Don Plant leaches into the Portneuf River.

Under the terms of the agreement, Simplot has agreed to install a liner over its massive gypsum stack, where tailings from phosphate ore are deposited. The company will also continue building monitoring wells to map the plume of polluted groundwater leaving the plant grounds, as well as extraction wells to remove the contaminated water, which is then cleaned and re-used in plant processes.

During the summer, Simplot also built a large decant pond to capture and store the process water that will be blocked from penetrating the gypsum stack by the new liner.

Simplot Environmental Engineering Manager Monty Johnson estimates the company has already spent more than $6 million in the past four years to start the mammoth clean-up effort.

"The long-term budget for this is in the multiple tens of millions of dollars," Johnson said.

The new requirements are included in an amendment the EPA recently signed to the original record of decision from 1998 outlining Simplot's clean-up obligations. While the original record of decision focusses on arsenic, the amendment adds phosphorus as a contaminant of concern. The EPA first proposed the amendment last spring.

Johnson said the liner will be made of high-density polyethylene and will be about 60 millimeters thick. The liner will be a permanent fix to the problem, Johnson said.

"Lining the (top) surface of that gypsum stack will be monumental in terms of reducing contamination to groundwater and in cleaning up the Portneuf River," Johnson said.

In 1990, the EPA designated the Eastern Michaud Flat Superfund Site, which includes the Don Plant and the former FMC site. The new modifications to the record of decision apply only to Simplot, but the EPA is in the process of completing a feasibility study to determine clean-up options for FMC. The federal agency anticipates having a similar plan for FMC's portion of the Superfund site by early this summer.

Now that the EPA has signed the record of decision amendment, the next step in the process will be finalizing a consent decree in federal court. A consent decree, the formal legal document between the EPA and Simplot to implement clean-up actions, should be issued within the next two or three months, according to the EPA.

Christine Psyk, associate director of the Office of Water and Watersheds for the EPA's Region 10, said the improvements should significantly help the health of the Portneuf River, which also feeds into the American Falls Reservoir and the Snake River. Phosphorus promotes rampant plant growth in waterways, choking out levels of dissolved oxygen. At times, Psyk noted levels of dissolved oxygen in the Portneuf downstream from the Don Plant can drop below allowable standards.

"This is a benefit not just to improving conditions on the site, making them cleaner and safer and healthier, and improving the groundwater, but it's a big, big win for the surface water considerably downstream from the location of the site," Psyk said.

The EPA's amendment focuses on both groundwater and surface water, but much of the groundwork was laid by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, which reached a voluntary consent order with Simplot two years ago requiring the company to address ways to improve surface water quality. Because the poor groundwater quality is directly impacting the surface water in the Portneuf, the two agencies have been working together.

"The work that we will do as a company will not only meet those goals for the voluntary consent order, but they will also dovetail into what we need to do for this (record of decision) amendment and this record of decision as a whole," Johnson said.

"We have had input in the process. We have enjoyed a close working relationship with DEQ and the EPA in trying to solve these problems. We feel like the (voluntary consent order) and this (record of decision) amendment are both vehicles that enable EPA and DEQ to protect human health and the environment, and the (voluntary consent order) and (record of decision) amendment also help the J.R. Simplot Co. focus our resources on projects that will do the most good for the health of the river and our communities."

Under the terms of the voluntary consent order with the DEQ, Simplot must start work on lining the gypsum stack this year and have the surface lined by 2015. The order also has a target of reducing phosphorus concentration by 50 percent as of Dec. 31, 2013. Officials say a 50 percent reduction would equate to 625 micrograms per liter of phosphorus in the Portneuf. Standards for phosphorus allow for a total maximum daily load of 75 micrograms per liter. By 2021, the voluntary consent order calls for a 94 percent reduction, in compliance with phosphorus standards.

At present, Simplot has an extensive set of monitoring and extraction wells in place and is scheduled to install additional wells this year. The existing network is capable of extracting 800 gallons of water per minute.

Bruce Olenick, Pocatello regional administrator with the DEQ, said Simplot has already significantly reduced phosphorus pollution from the plant by improving infrastructure to stop leaks at the aging facility. Lining the gypsum stack, however, will be the major step, he said. He noted a million gallons of process water per day flow through the bottom of the gypsum stack and percolate through to the groundwater.

"I'm pleased that we finally came through this, and we're going to work with our federal partners and Simplot to fix a problem that's been here for a long time," Olenick said.

Officials with the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes acknowledged the amendment is a significant milestone, but they expressed concerns in a letter dated Jan. 15 that the timeline is too broad and the plan could do more to protect the environment.

"We are hopeful with the progress made but remain concerned that this amendment does not go far enough to protect human health and the environment," the letter, authored by Arnold Appeney, director of the Shoshone-Bannock Environmental Waste Management Program, reads.

Appeney also voiced concerns about the EPA's estimate that it will take 15 years to meet surface water standards for phosphorus.

"Fifteen years of continued groundwater contamination migrating from this facility, entering the Portneuf River and flowing onto the Fort Hall Reservation is unacceptable," Appeney wrote.

Kira Lynch, remedial project manager with the EPA's Office of Environmental Clean-up, is certain the agencies are correcting the problem as quickly as possible and that the solutions identified will be effective. She said the EPA will also continue monitoring groundwater to make certain the targets are being met.

"The approach EPA is taking is we feel we're going to work with Simplot to control these sources as fast as is technically feasible," Lynch said. "That is really the best we can do."

John O'Connell
EPA, Simplot Reach Deal
Idaho State Journal, January 27, 2010

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