Potatoes raise a stink in Idaho

  • Ririe, Idaho

    Diane Sylvain
  • Making french fries in Idaho - Or

    da Foods
  • Potato

 

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."

What stinks? 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.

"We don't mind them being there," she says, "but clean up your act, be good neighbors."

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 renewal.

Many of Idaho's potato processing facilities have outdated permits, and activists have seized on the renewal process as a way to attack some of them, including plants operated by Basic American, J.R. Simplot and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.

Ririe's angry 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 Eager.

"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 208/528-2650.

* Emily Miller, HCN intern

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