Back to the polls Nov. 21; County voters will decide fate of fertilizer plant by David Lias Factions with two widely divergent points of view in Clay County will soon discover what local citizens hold most dear � the right to open and operate a business in a free enterprise society, or a duty to protect the environment, most notably water aquifers, from potential harm.
Brad Trudeau of Centerville so far has met all of the requirements needed to construct a fertilizer plant in Riverside Township.
His application to change the zoning of the seven acre site of the proposed plant was approved by an ordinance passed by the Clay County Commission late this summer.
The ordinance changed the zoning of Trudeau's proposed plant's site from A-1 (agricultural district) to I-2 (industrial district).
The proposed fertilizer plant has not been without controversy.
A majority of 60 people who attended the Aug. 8 commission meeting appeared to be concerned about the impact the plant may have on the environment, particularly on ground water.
Those concerns were voiced again at the Aug. 29 meeting.
Trudeau wants to build his fertilizer plant on property located approximately two miles north of one of the well heads that is a water source for Clay Rural Water.
Fears of contamination
Citizens have expressed concern that an accidental chemical spill at the plant could contaminate both the Vermillion River and shallow underground aquifers in the region.
A major fear voiced by opponents of the plant's site is that a catastrophe could lead to a spill of chemicals that would eventually flow south approximately two miles to the Clay Rural Water wellhead, and also possibly pollute a major underground aquifer that is the source of water for many of the county's rural residents.
One of those concerned citizens is Vermillion Mayor William Radigan, who noted in early August that the city of Vermillion also draws its water supply from wells that tap into underground aquifers.
"This is the aquifer that we (the city of Vermillion) use," Radigan told the commissioners in early August. "I have some concern that (if there was a leak) we have not only the immediate crisis that we would have to meet, but we have the long-term situation of going elsewhere for water."
Stan Pence, a hydrologist with the South Dakota Geological Survey, informed commissioners that the aquifer the city taps into is separate from the one beneath the site of the proposed plant.
"There's a right to be concerned in regards to contamination getting into our aquifers, no matter where at or what we're doing," he said. "But the aquifer that Vermillion is tapping into versus the one that is up around Clay Rural Water � they are connected, but these are two different aquifers.
"If there is contamination that occurred in the area of Clay Rural Water, the likelihood of it affecting Vermillion's water supply is almost zero," Pence added, "simply because of the distance between those locations."
Site does have benefits
At Radigan's request, Pence and Derrick Iles, a state geologist with the Geological Survey Program at The University of South Dakota, appeared before the Vermillion City Council, at Radigan's request.
The detailed report they presented pointed out that, in many ways, the site Trudeau has chosen for his fertilizer plant has merit.
Iles told the council that the fertilizer plant will be resting on a thick bed of clay, and added that water in the aquifer in that region moves very slowly.
Should a catastrophic spill occur at the fertilizer plant, Iles said, "it would have to soak through the clays and the silts that are present at the land surface
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out there, and then get down to the water table, and assuming that it did that, then it would have start migrating in the direction of the groundwater flow."
If the spill flowed in a straight line in a southerly direction from the plant site, "the best estimate that we have at this point in time is that it would take 25 years for the water to get that far, and that's why our opinion is that there is no real imminent threat to the Clay Rural Water well field."
If a spill occurred, there would be ample time for people to respond. Mother Nature would also help. "There would be a tremendous amount of dilution that would go on, there would be biological activity that would help to degrade the contaminants into something else less harmful, so there are a lot of reasons we are not concerned."
The Vermillion River, located south of the proposed plant site, also acts as a discharge point for shallow ground water. "You have a natural barrier to shallow contaminants," Iles said.
He adding that the fertilizer plant poses virtually no threat to the aquifer that the city of Vermillion taps for water. "You're probably looking at greater than 600 years of travel time for a spill to get down here," he said.
Opponents remain wary
This information obviously wasn't enough to ease the concerns of opponents of the fertilizer plant. In September, they filed petitions with enough signatures to refer the county commission's zoning decision.
Roger Hansen, who owns property adjacent to the fertilizer plant site, is a vocal opponent. He told commissioners in August that even if Trudeau met all state regulations in constructing his business, there are no guarantees against a catastrophe.
Trudeau's playing by the rules set by the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, Hansen said, only means he has taken steps to minimize risks. It doesn't mean he can guarantee that an aquifer will never be contaminated from the proposed plant.
"There is no way of guaranteeing that you can't contaminate that aquifer in some way, even though you've followed the regulations to the letter," Hansen said.
Hansen said a catastrophic release of chemicals at the site could escape any containment facility and eventually flow into the Vermillion River or into the aquifer.
"It's a proven system"
Trudeau requested to have the property rezoned to I-2 because that designation allows storage of above-ground chemicals or gasoline.
The state Department of Agriculture and Nohr Engineering of Yankton have developed new guidelines for construction of secondary containment and the loading, mixing and wash pads for bulk fertilizer and pesticide storage facilities, he added.
Trudeau told commissioners in August that fertilizer and pesticide containment systems are regulated by the state and designed to prevent leaking and spilling of products into the environment.
"The containment area must be capable of containing 125 percent of the largest volume tank inside the area," he said. "The South Dakota Department of Ag requires monitoring and leak detection systems under the contaminant areas. Monthly records of monitoring are required for the life of the facility."
Trudeau said such a system is proven to protect the environment. He provided commissioners with information about a fertilizer and mixing plant in Bridgewater that was struck by a tornado in 1992. The design of the plant, he said, kept 3,200 gallons of chemicals within the facility's containment area and didn't harm the environment.
"It's a proven system," he said.
Trudeau noted that he is proposing to build his plant in a region that is not heavily populated. "That's one reason that we picked this area," he said.