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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Waste water scheme may signal faltering Northern Beef Packers

The headline in our local newspaper proclaimed "Beef plant floats water plan." To some community officials and supporters of the beef packing plant, the announcement and details of a waste water treatment plan is sending signals of a sinking enterprise.

Northern Beef Packers is constructing a packing plant south of Aberdeen next to the city's waste water treatment plant. From the outset the enterprise has had opposition and detractors. The most vocal and strident objections came from people who expressed

opposition to the “the kind of people” the plant would attract to the community as employees—Latinos, Asians, illegal aliens, and people from other parts of our country and the world who would contaminate the racial, social, and cultural purity of the

Aberdeen area. The detractors argued that the influx of such people would overload the school system, the police and fire departments, the welfare program, the housing market, and would inevitably send the crime rate soaring.

Others opposed the beef packing plant on the grounds that it would reduce property values by changing the nature of the south side of town, would create noise, visual pollution, bad odors, and in general be an environmental nuisance because of its proximity to the town. A problem was that the environmental concerns were usually linked to the racial concerns, so that whaver the pretext for objecting to the plant, the motives for the opposition appeared to be thinly disguised racism.

Community officials and leaders who are trying to develop the town were understandably chagrined by the racist assumptions and characterizations generated by townspeople. Northern Beef Packers applied for a Tax Increment Financing status, which defers paying property taxes on a commercial real estate project until it is running and producing revenues. Petitions were ciruculated to put the TIF status to a public vote. The TIF was approved by voters by a large margin. Law suits on environmental impact were dismissed, and Northern Beef Packers received the go-ahead to begin construction.

Supporters of the plant, first of all, cited the shrinking and aging of the population around Aberdeen as a reason for a new enterprise. If the plant reaches full production capacity, it will employ 600 and process 1,500 head of cattle a day. Agriculture interests saw it as an important step for value-added agriculture within the state. It would process state certified beef, and it would serve as an economic delivery point for cattle feeders in the region. It would also provide a marketing alternative to the three giant corporations that control beef packing in the U.S.

Plant promoters countered all the environmental objections to the plant by assuring that it would be constructed to eliminate noise and odor and would treat its waste water to prevent any kind of air, water, or ground pollution.

That is why the announcement in the newspaper cast such a dark cloud over the prospects for the plant to reach production status. Some officials and leaders have known about the plan announced in the newspaper for some weeks, but assumed it would be quickly rejected.

The new plan would circumvent waste water treatment and instead divert the waste water to a series of five to seven holding ponds of 17 acres each. As one city official put it, for “holding ponds” read “sewage lagoons.” The ponds would aerate the water and then send it by pipes to farms where it would irrigate crops. The official said, We approved a beef packing plant and now we’re getting an e coli factory.” That was one of the politest and most generous attitudes expressed toward the plan.

The plan would involve buying land for the ponds, obtaining easements for pipelines, and enlisting farmers who would irrigate their fields with the waste water.

The plan was explained to the Brown County Commission Tuesday from whom its promoters were asking for a resolution of support. The County Commisioners said they would defer consideration until they heard from the public on the matter. The plan would have to be approved by a phalanx of government agencies, and one official said he could not think of an agency operating under current regulations that could approve the plan.

The biggest concern was expressed by officials who said their support for the packing plant was enlisted with the assurances that plant would utilize the latest technology in eliminating waste products and pollution and now the plant backers are going back on their word and promoting a scheme that would turn southern Brown County into a chain of sewage lagoons.

The announcement of the plan dampened support for the packing plant and cast dark clouds of doubt about the viability of the plant. A project manager hired for the plant appears to have left and other factors in the project cast doubt on its progress. The promoters of the sewage lagoons claim the plan will save $5 million in construction, but engineers and environmental technicians can’t come up with a rationale for that claim.

Northern Beef Packers has more problems to overcome than its detractors at this point.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States