Something's rotten in Ririe, Idaho, a town of less than 1,000 close to Idaho Falls. At least, the residents who live near the Idaho Pacific potato processing plant think so.
"You've got to hold your breath for at least a
half a mile driving out on the road (by the plant)," says LuWayne
Gallup. "It makes you want to vomit. You can't open doors or
windows. It's absolutely putrid."
Millions of pounds of leftover potato sludge that Idaho Pacific has
dumped onto surrounding fields for the past decade. The sludge is
rich in nitrates, iron and manganese, so rich it has turned green
hayfields black and lifeless, says Gallup, who lives less than a
mile from the processing plant
And then there's
the liquid wastewater. Gallup and her neighbors claim the waste is
getting into irrigation ditches and seeping into the ground. Gallup
now buys bottled water for her family to drink. Patrons of her home
beauty shop complain of unusual mishaps, such as unintentionally
purple hair, and she attributes her daughter's severe eczema and
her own skin problems to contaminated water.
don't mind them being there," she says, "but clean up your act, be
Gallup was one of 167 Ririe
area residents who delivered that message April 16 at a meeting
with the state Department of Environmental Quality and potato
company executives. The timing of the meeting was important: Idaho
Pacific's state operating permit, which includes a "land
application" permit that allows the company to dispose of waste
materials directly onto the ground, is up for
Many of Idaho's potato processing
facilities have outdated permits, and activists have seized on the
renewal process as a way to attack some of them, including plants
operated by Basic American, J.R. Simplot and Nonpareil in Bingham
County to the south.
The matter is sensitive
because potato processing means big money to Idaho's economy.
Idaho's potato industry was valued at about $1.4 billion in 1995,
says Alan Porter of the Idaho Department of Commerce, with
processing accounting for nearly half this figure. Prices are low
this year, he says, but it's fresh potato sales that are suffering,
not potatoes for french fries and dehydrated potato products such
as those produced in Ririe.
residents, who have organized as the Concerned Citizens Committee,
came up with 10 recommendations for adding teeth to Idaho Pacific's
permit, including installing flow-meters to monitor the outgoing
waste, and adjusting the allowable waste-to-land ratio.
"If Idaho Pacific was adhering to waste
management guidelines," says Concerned Citizens chairman Ron Reed,
"there would be no stink, no aquifer pollution, no trouble at all."
Reed says his group's biggest problem is getting the state to
enforce permit conditions.
Greg Eager, a
spokesman for the Department of Environmental Quality, agrees that
the state regulations are strict enough to protect the environment,
but says getting the companies to comply is a slow process. Eager
says he is handling five similar cases in the Idaho Falls region
alone. The Ririe plant, which employs about 200 people, is
cooperating with the clean-up, though hardly enthusiastically, says
"The ground rules have just changed and
changed. We're working diligently, trying to work with our
neighbors, but this whole thing is really just a Pandora's box-type
situation," says Richard Zirkelbach, president of Idaho Pacific.
Zirkelbach refused to discuss the situation further.
Working against the activists is the fact that
there is no firm deadline for the issuance of new permits. The old
permits will remain in place until the state and the companies come
to agreement over new waste-disposal regulations.
Ririe activists say they hope to speed the
clean-up process, but don't expect things to change overnight.
"We're not looking for a quick fix," Ron Reed says. "Let's face it.
If you're a big business and you have a choice between spending a
million dollars to make some changes or keep on making more money,
what are you going to do?"
For more information
contact the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality at