Agri-Mark seeks new discharge permit, group questions past violations

MIDDLEBURY — Agri-Mark Inc. is seeking a permit from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources that would allow it to increase the amount of wastewater it discharges from its Exchange Street cheese plant in Middlebury.
While company and town officials say improvements at the plant will benefit them both by evening out discharges to the local water treatment plant, an outside group is raising questions about Agri-Mark’s environmental record.
The Agency of Natural Resources sought public comment on the discharge permit application filed by Agri-Mark, which owns the Cabot Creamery, at an Oct. 1 hearing in Middlebury. Twelve people attended the meeting, including representatives from the ANR, the town of Middlebury, Agri-Mark, opposition group Whey to Go and private citizens.
Currently, the Agri-Mark facility is permitted to output 3,000 pounds of biochemical oxygen demand discharge, or BOD, per day. The new permit would increase this capacity to 3,300 pounds per day. The total permitted discharge — all of the water, not just the BOD — would increase from 350,000 to 450,000 gallons per day.
Because of irregularities in the Agri-Mark plant’s production schedule, the discharge to the municipal treatment center has sometimes spiked. In those cases, a combination of water and solid byproducts of dairy production has at times overwhelmed the water treatment facility. To correct this problem, Agri-Mark is seeking to build a 200,000-gallon equalization tank to hold discharge and release it in a steady flow, so as to not unreasonably burden the treatment facility.
Ernie Kelley, program manager for the ANR’s Wastewater Treatment program, believes an equalization tank would benefit both Agri-Mark and the town of Middlebury.
“(The tank) will allow the Middlebury treatment facility to operate more efficiently,” Kelley said.
The Middlebury wastewater treatment plant has a daily capacity of 2.2 million gallons. Currently, it processes about half of that, about 1.05 million gallons. The Agri-Mark plant is responsible for about one-third of that flow, discharging 350,000 gallons per day, according Kelley and Agri-Mark.
Charlotte Dennett, a Cambridge attorney and member of Whey to Go, an organization that is critical of Agri-Mark’s waste disposal practices, spoke at the Oct. 1 meeting.
Dennett said she supported the equalization tank project, but believes the ANR needs stricter rules and stricter penalties in its dealings with Agri-Mark. ANR fined Agri-Mark $75,000 in 2008 for illegal discharges at its Middlebury plant; she called that fine “a slap on the wrist.”
“We don’t have a lot of confidence in the self-monitoring practices of Agri-Mark,” said Dennett, citing the company’s numerous environmental violations over the last decade.
Dennett said Whey to Go is concerned with the amount of phosphorus being dumped into rivers and Lake Champlain, resulting in large algae blooms that are bad for the environment. She said she was concerned that Agri-Mark’s use of phosphorus-based cleaning solvents, which are released in its discharges, are contributing to this problem.
The ANR’s Kelly said issues raised by Dennett and Jill Alexander of Whey to Go mostly had to do with the discharge practices of Agri-Mark facility in Cabot, not the plant in Middlebury. While the ANR will respond to comments relevant to the permit in question, Kelly said he does not have the legal authority to respond to issues raised that were not germane to this particular project.
However, the Agri-Mark plant in Middlebury has not been without its own problems. In July 2002, the plant exceeded its monthly average limit for phosphorus discharge; the limit was 100 pounds, and the plant discharged 118.
Dennett filed public records requests with the town of Middlebury and ANR regarding their dealings with Agri-Mark. She shared the documents she received, which date back to the plant’s opening in 1994, with the Independent.
In 2004 memorandum, the ANR criticized Agri-Mark’s collection of samples for analysis. In it, the ANR said, “the documentation for these samples was very misleading … This is not acceptable and MUST be corrected immediately.”
Agri-Mark violated its monthly flow limit of 350,000 gallons per day from July 2006 to January 2007, according to the records. During this period, the company discharged between 350,700 and 386,400 gallons per day. The ANR gave the Middlebury plant an “unacceptable” rating for that period due to “violations of major permit parameters.”
In 2008 the company was fined $75,000 for violating its discharge permits in Middlebury. One-third of that penalty went to the state’s General Fund, while the remaining $50,000 went to the Supplemental Environmental Program, a fund set up by the ANR for use on other environmental projects.
In January 2009 and again in May 2012, the company exceeded its daily permitted BOD limit of 3,000 pounds, by discharging 4,367 pounds and 4,939 pounds, respectively
Dennett pointed to an incident in July 2012 in which discharge leaked from the Agri-Mark plant in Middlebury and flooded the basement in the Woodridge Apartments. Ironically, the tenant was an Agri-Mark employee.
“If that’s in someone’s neighborhood, who’s to say it’s not in Otter Creek?” Dennett asked.
On Aug. 10, 2012, less than two weeks after the leak at the Agri-Mark plant, then-Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger sent an email to wastewater treatment plant superintendent Bob Wells and Liz Dickson of the ANR. In it, he said, “I think its time for us to have a sit down discussion of this situation with the state and Cabot. They have a sweet deal with the town to start with and then they don’t seem to feel any obligation to comply.”
Attempts by the Independent to reach Finger for further comment were unsuccessful.
Wastewater plant superintendent Wells welcomes the new equalization tank and believes it will benefit both the town and Agri-Mark.
“It will help the town out immensely,” Wells said. “By releasing a constant load from the Cabot facility, it will consume less electricity and run more smoothly — it’s a good thing all around.”
Wells said Agri-Mark was “very receptive” to the town’s need for a more constant rate of discharge from the plant, and said the idea of an equalization tank had been considered for several years.
The treatment plant tests for phosphorus on a weekly basis, Wells said. Last month, 54 percent of the phosphorus processed by the facility came from the Agri-Mark plant. Wells said while this is a lot, it is nothing the treatment plant can’t handle. To the best of his knowledge, the Middlebury water treatment facility has never violated any of its environmental permits. Thus, phosphorus processed by the plant would not make it into Otter Creek.
“This is definitely going to prevent that from happening again,” Wells said, referring to the 2012 leak.
In a Sept. 21 email from Ed Pcolar, vice president of production for Agri-Mark, to current Middlebury Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay, Pcolar said he hoped Agri-Mark could secure the permit by mid-October and complete construction on the equalization tank this year.
Reached for comment Thursday, Pcolar reiterated his hope that the project would be completed as soon as possible, and said a “variety of failsafes” exist in the facility to prevent future permit violations.
Pcolar described an amiable relationship between Agri-Mark and the town of Middlebury.
“We’ve had a great partnership with the town — nothing but an open, transparent relationship,” Pcolar said. “We approached the town about the project, and want to be good corporate citizens.”
The public comment period for the proposed permit ended Oct. 4.

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