Odor complaints, wastewater issues cost Michigan Sugar Co. millions of dollars

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Connie Jacobs supervises a bank of centrifuges that spin molasses into sugar at the Pioneer Sugar Plant in Bay City in Michigan's Thumb.

Michigan Sugar Co. will pay $300,000 in fines to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and millions of dollars in facility improvements as part of a settlement in an August 2017 lawsuit targeting odor and water quality complaints at the company’s Bay City facility.

The settlement signed at the end of December requires the company to make operational changes and equipment improvements to mitigate water, odor and debris complaints and contribute toward environmental projects near the site.

“DEQ is committed to working with the public and Michigan Sugar Company to ensure that this settlement brings about a lasting and satisfactory resolution to the environmental and community concerns,” DEQ Director Liesl Eichler Clark said in a statement.

Michigan Sugar continued to deny the DEQ’s allegations in the settlement but agreed to the terms to avoid “the time and expense of contested litigation,” according to court documents.

“Michigan Sugar Co. and the MDEQ are both committed to preserving the environment, and we look forward to working with the agency to promote the best interests of our company and the community," company President and CEO Mark Flegenheimer said in a statement. 

Michigan Sugar Co. is a more than century-old cooperative owned by about 900 sugar beet farmers in 20 Michigan counties and Canada. The company produces about 1.3 billion pounds of sugar nationally under the Pioneer and Big Chief brands. 

The lawsuit filed in 2017 stemmed from complaints and violations between 2013 and 2017 related to odor and water quality issues. Specifically, the DEQ alleged the Bay City production facility emitted odors that created “an unreasonable interference” to the public and discharged wastewater into state waterways without a valid permit.

The settlement between the state and company requires Michigan Sugar to comply with its’ wastewater discharge permit, reduce odors with new equipment and decrease roadway debris resulting from trucking operations.

Some of the equipment upgrades were already underway prior to the settlement, Michigan Sugar spokesman Rob Clark said. He did not have an approximate price for the changes but said it was expected to cost millions. 

The settlement also requires the company to finance two environmental projects that would contribute toward the state's Saginaw Bay Reef Restoration and create a tree vegetative barrier along an internal roadway to cut down on dust and noise. The projects will cost a combined $262,500.

“While we are certainly pleased to have the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality lawsuit behind us, we are even more pleased that the negotiated settlement allows us to invest in a project to boost the Lake Huron fishery and spawn further economic development in the Great Lakes Bay Region," Flegenheimer said in a statement. 


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