Stung by a stiff state Department of Ecology fine, Ostrom Co. officials vowed once again last week to revamp the way they handle wastewater from their mushroom plant near Lacey.
The mushroom farm owner was hit with an $88,000 penalty in late May for 48 violations of its wastewater discharge permit between March 2008 and December 2009 and failure to take seriously directives from Ecology to tackle the wastewater problems.
The company has a work force of 230 and produces 10 million pounds of mushrooms a year at its Steilacoom Road farm complex south of Lacey. It discharges about 6,000 gallons of water used daily to wash down its sprawling compost preparation and mushroom-growing rooms.
“We use a huge amount of water to constantly keep things clean,” Ostrom President and Chief Executive Officer David Knudsen said during a tour of the farm last week.
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The water is collected, filtered, sent to an outdoor settling tank, then sprayed on about 10 percent of the 36-acre farm Ostrom began operating in 1966.
Ecology officials said Ostrom has consistently exceeded permit limits for such pollutants as diazinon, a pesticide used to control flies in the compost; total nitrogen; total dissolved solids; and chloride. In addition, the company has failed to report formaldehyde as required in the permit.
“Based on Ostrom’s limited response to our many efforts to address these violations, it’s pretty clear they don’t have the sense of urgency that we do in getting these problems fixed,” Ecology water quality program manager Kelly Susewind said when the fine was levied in May.
To date, the wastewater violations have not created a groundwater pollution problem that threatens public health, said Ecology hydrogeologist John Stormon. It helps that there are no drinking water wells within a mile of the groundwater flowing from the site, he said.
However, a groundwater monitoring well on the property showed a total dissolved solid reading in March 2009 of 999 parts per million, nearly twice the groundwater standard.
“The total dissolved solids in the monitoring well are a red flag,” said Ecology industrial permit compliance specialist Marc Pacifico.
Knudsen said the company has appealed the Ecology penalty to the state Pollution Control Hearings Board, but remains committed to solving its wastewater problem.
“We’re eager to get back in synch with Ecology,” he said.
The company uses about 18,000 gallons of water per day, much of it to make compost to grow the mushrooms.
“The best solution is to create a zero discharge system – use the wash water in our compost production,” Knudsen said.
Knudsen said the company has an engineering firm on board, working on the project.
Another possible option would be for Ostrom to hook up to the Lacey city sewer system. The city sewer line has been extended to the Regional Athletic Complex, which is across the street from Ostrom, city senior civil engineer Teri O’Neal said.
The sewer option is more expensive and would dispose of water that Ostrom could use at the farm, Knudsen said.
Ecology has ordered Ostrom to have an engineering plan in place by October. The current wastewater permit expires June 30, 2012, and will not be renewed without a new wastewater plan, Pacifico said.
NOT A NEW PROBLEM
A review of Ecology records shows that wastewater permit problems and regulatory battles between the state agency and Ostrom – and promises to resolve them – are nothing new.
In July 1998, then-Ostrom president William Street informed Ecology of a $2 million project to recycle all the wastewater generated at the farm.
“We are moving on this project as fast as we can,” Street said in an Oct. 21, 1998, letter to Pacifico.
Knudsen, who’s been at the Ostrom helm for two years, said the project apparently took a back seat to another pressing environmental problem – odors from the compost piles. The compost used to be prepared outside, but is now prepped inside.
“We haven’t been standing still, but we need to do more,” Knudsen said.
In a letter to Street in August 1998, Ecology watershed engineer Norman Schenck followed up from a site inspection, warning company officials they could be penalized for failing to submit wastewater monitoring reports and violating permit limits.
“The same noncompliance items pointed out in this inspection report were pointed out in the inspection report sent to you in June 1996,” Schenck said.
‘NO HEALTH RISK’
Knudsen said the company has a renewed commitment to meet Ecology requirements, but feels the May penalty is overkill.
“There’s no health risk here,” he said. “The penalty and Ecology press release has created an unnecessary level of concern among our customers.”
In 2008 and 2009, Ecology issued 206 penalties, seven of which were for a higher dollar amount than Ostrom’s.
Several factors go into the size of an Ecology penalty, including public health risk, environmental damage, willful violations, failure to correct problems, economic benefit from not complying, failure to obtain permits, and improper maintenance and operation of a site.
Given Ostrom’s track record of multiple, willful violations and sloppy record-keeping, the penalty could have been $192,000 under Ecology’s formula.
Ecology reduced the penalty so Ostrom would have more financial resources to direct at eliminating the discharge to groundwater, Ecology officials said.
One of the pollutants of particular concern in the Ostrom wash water is diazinon. From March 2008 through December 2009, wastewater samples showed concentrations ranging from 3.1 parts per billion to 160 ppb. The permit level is 1 ppb.
PESTICIDE BAN LOOMS
Diazinon is the last widely used pesticide from a class of chemicals known as organophosphates that attack the nervous system and are thought to pose special threats to children, even at low doses, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The chemical also is highly toxic to birds and fish.
EPA began phasing out the use of diazinon in household and lawn and garden products in 2000, but the ban on diazinon use in the mushroom industry isn’t final until Sept. 10, 2010.
“Our ban is one of the very last to go into effect,” said Laura Phelps, president of the American Mushroom Industry.
She said growers historically have applied diazinon to the walls and floors of mushroom grow rooms, but not directly to the compost.
“It’s used in a room where nobody is working, in between crops, so there’s a very low risk of worker exposure,” she said.
At Ostrom, each batch of compost in a 25-square-foot tray is used to grow three crops of mushrooms before it is sterilized and sold for reuse as a soil amendment, Knudsen said.