Coal Ash: Western Nebraska Health Hazard

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On September 8th of 2018 I drove into the North Platte River Valley in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska.  I was struck by the majesty and unique beauty of the area.  This was my first time visiting the area and, though very different from my home in Northern Colorado, I couldn’t wait to begin exploring the history and landscapes of the Western Nebraska Great Plains.

I crossed the North Platte River and saw Bald eagles perched in bare cottonwood trees while thousands of Canadian geese dotted small lakes and ponds along the river.

Crossing the river I noticed a large area to the Southeast that looked as though it had been stripped of all topsoil not far from the rivers edge.  

Heavy equipment was on the road and trucks were moving into the area following a frontend loader.  

Looking to the left a large plant rose from the horizon.  A tall billowing smoke stack rising to the sky and large mounds of material occupied a very large clear area beside ponds filled with water and hundreds of geese sitting on the side of a berms that surrounded the pond next to large tanks.  

I had no idea what I was looking at or the purpose of this plant but, I was stuck by the smell which had a unique stench, sweet but bitter, and it seemed to permeate every corner of my nostrils.  

Arriving to my guest home I immediately ask what the Plants purpose was, what did it produce? 

This is where my education of agriculture in western Nebraska began.

I was told that it was a sugar processing plant called Western Sugar Cooperative and it had been a mainstay for the economy of the farmers in the area for almost one hundred years by processing sugar beats into table sugar and other molasses products.

I didn’t have to endure the smell of the Plants emissions for very long that day.  The wind shifted to the east as the morning passed into afternoon and the offensive smell dissipated; some what.  

I was on my way to South Dakota the following day and noticed a significant difference in the air quality the further north I traveled out of the North Platte River Valley.  

A few days later I was expected back in Colorado and my companion and I made the reverse trip back into western Nebraska following Highway 72.

Approaching Scottsbluff the road follows a scenic route following ridge-lines of small canyons north of Scottsbluff.  A low hanging haze that seemed to stretch the length of the valley from the eastern side of Scottsbluff all the way to eastern side of Mitchell, Nebraska could be seen.  It was clear where the haze was coming from.  The haze ended at the Western Sugar Cooperative Plant on the east side of Scottsbluff.

The wind had shifted and the fumes being emitted from the Western Sugar Factory was blowing back to the west encapsulated in a thermal inversion above the valley floor.  

Locked between cold air at the bottom of the valley and colder air above the buttes this midlevel layer of warm air funneled the fumes, and smell, across the downtown district of Scottsbluff and west following the North Platte River.

Continuing into Scottsbluff the smell of processed sugar beets was strong but there was something else in the air I didn’t recognize.  It was a chemical smell like something burnt that you could taste in the air.  

I ask my companion if she could smell the difference in the air as we descended into the valley.  She couldn’t.  I could and I immediately noticed a low-grade headache beginning between my eyes.  

I left Scottsbluff the same day and found myself back in the valley two weeks later.  

On arriving near the North Platte River and HWY 72 I immediately noticed the smell and the low-grade headache as I approached the eastern side of the Western Sugar Factory. 

It was a windy day as it most always is in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming.  Winds often reach sustained speeds of 30 mph with higher gust. 

As I approached the East side of the Western Sugar Cooperative at HWY 72 and HWY 26 I could see clouds of black dust blowing in the wind, crossing the road, and landing in a pond on the east side of HWY 71.

I was returning to the valley to do a photoshoot on Campaign; the name given to the efforts of harvesting sugar beats and transporting them to Western Sugar Cooperative for processing.  

Campaign begins on October 6th and runs for two weeks.  During this time an all-out effort to harvest the sugar beats as quickly as possible, day and night, twenty-four hours a day happens among farmers to beat the cold temperatures of October that halt the process of sugar production inside the sugar beat; yielding more sugar per plant and more money for the farmer.  

My job was to document the process beginning in the fields and ending at the Plant detailing the evolution of table sugar in a photo-essay.  

I made arrangements to meet with a representative of Western Sugar Cooperative who took me around the plant detailing the operations and stages of production.  

While driving through the southeast side of the plant where sugar beats are off-loaded onto beat stackers I ask my guide what the large black mound of material was.  He said is was Coal ash; the left over material from firing coal to heat boilers in the plant to process the sugar beats. 

He then went on to say that the Plant was currently over-stocked with coal ash and was attempting to remedy what to do with the material.   

Having worked with environmental issues over the span of my carrier I knew the dangers of Coal ash and ask him why the pile wasn’t covered with tarps.  He couldn’t answer my questions and side-stepped the issue the moment he realized I was interested in learning more about how Western Sugar Cooperative was stock-piling the toxic material.

We left the area and traveled to other areas of the Plant.  I ask to return to the pile of Coal ash so I could make some images but was denied access.

I finished the essay that day and returned back home in northern Colorado.

A few weeks later I arrived back in the area and once again my senses were assaulted by the smell of the Western Sugar Cooperative factory cranking out fumes, heat and steam from valves around the plant.  

On the drive into the valley I witnessed the coal ash blowing in the wind, again.  It’s then that I decided to look into the operations of Western Sugar Cooperative.  

I had mentioned to a few people that I was thinking about doing a story on the subject but was quickly told that I should avoid it all together for fear of hurting the cooperative and the people that worked there. Some people even told me that loosing the Sugar Plant would turn Scottsbluff into a ghost-town as if a small story on the handling of the Coal ash would have an effect on the multi-million dollar Corporation.

I shelved the idea in 2018 and into 2019 and settled into being oblivious, overlooking and accepting the Scottsbluff social status quo for fear of upsetting the apple cart.  

That lasted until 2020 when after waking to my girlfriend coughing violently, repeatedly, every morning for almost an hour, I decided to try and do something about it.  I thought I knew why she was coughing.  In my opinion it was the coal ash blowing in the wind in one of the many thermal inversions that blanket the North Platte River Valley. 

I considered this as an answer because when we left the valley on a trip she wouldn’t cough for days until we returned to Scottsbluff, NE.

I looked into complaints against Western Sugar Cooperative via the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality which I contacted to acquire the DEQ number assigned to the Cooperative.  I was looking for Coal ash noncompliance but I found so much more.

I reviewed many issues regarding Western Sugar Cooperative and the failings to contain, and clean-up, everything from water to molasses spills and failing inspections. In one letter Western Sugar Cooperative found fault in the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality procedures which they considered to be unfair. They went on to reversed the blame stating that the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality efforts were “pushy”.

Sadly, the local newspaper doesn’t, or is afraid to, report on the noncompliance of Western Sugar Cooperative or environmental spills even when the spill shuts down a road in the City of Scottsbluff.

Then I came across a lawsuit in which Western Sugar Cooperative was fined for illegally stock-piling Coal ash and noise pollution at their Fort Morgan location by the state of Colorado in which they were fined over 2 million dollars.  No one was willing to speak to me at Western Sugar Cooperative when I called them for comment.   

My efforts to try and understand why Western Sugar Cooperative is allowed to stock-pile over 500,000 tons of highly toxic and dangerous Coal ash have gone unanswered to date and I have no idea as to why the residents of Scottsbluff, NE continue to overlook the environmental threat from the Western Sugar Cooperative.

Be aware of the black pile of material at the Western Sugar Cooperative and know that it’s hazardous to your health. Consider wearing a mask when driving by the location especially on the East side of the plant.

About Coal Ash

Coal ash, also referred to as coal combustion residuals (CCRs), is produced from burning coal in coal-fired power plants.  Coal ash includes a number of by-products produced from burning coal, including:

Fly Ash, a very fine, powdery material composed mostly of silica made from the burning of finely ground coal in a boiler.

Bottom Ash, a coarse, angular ash particle that is too large to be carried up into the smoke stacks so it forms in the bottom of the coal furnace.

Boiler Slag, molten bottom ash from slag tap and cyclone type furnaces that turns into pellets that have a smooth glassy appearance after it is cooled with water.

Flue Gas Desulfurization Material, a material leftover from the process of reducing sulfur dioxide emissions from a coal-fired boiler that can be a wet sludge consisting of calcium sulfite or calcium sulfate or a dry powered material that is a mixture of sulfites and sulfates.

Coal Ash is hazardous. Coal Ash is waste. According to the EPA, Coal ash is not “Hazardous Waste.” But, it’s extremely hazardous to human health.

Coal ash contains heavy metals including arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium, as well as aluminum, antimony, barium, beryllium, boron, chlorine, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, thallium, vanadium, and zinc.

If eaten, drunk or inhaled, these toxicants can cause cancer and nervous system impacts such as cognitive deficits, developmental delays and behavioral problems. 

They can also cause heart damage, lung disease, respiratory distress, kidney disease, reproductive problems, gastrointestinal illness, birth defects, and impaired bone growth in children.

Environmental Noncompliance

You can view all of Western Sugar Cooperative’s noncompliance, fines, and transactions with the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality by visiting this webpage and entering the DEQ Facility Number in any field.  

Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality
Western Sugar Cooperative DEQ Facility Number #44141
https://ecmp.nebraska.gov/publicaccess/viewer.aspx?MyQueryID=340

The site references .PDF files and will take a few moments to load into your web browser.

|| REFERENCES

Fort Morgan Times
Western Sugar Fined 2 Million Dollars by State of Colorado

United States of America Environmental Protection Agency
https://www.epa.gov/coalash/coal-ash-basics

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