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Zumbrota raises fine on dairy plant

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ZUMBROTA — In the wake of repeated wastewater violations by the Dairy Farmers of America facility, the Zumbrota City Council voted Thursday to raise its fee schedule and increase its fine amount for the third time since 2009.

Zumbrota Mayor Rich Bauer says the dairy plant will now be fined $6 per unit of BOD, which stands for biochemical oxygen demand. The plant was fined $90,000 last summer for numerous violations at $3 per unit, prompting the council to increase the per-unit fine to $4.50.

Additional violations in the fall prompted the city to issue another fine of about $36,000, though that was reduced earlier this month to roughly $18,000 after an appeal by Dairy Farmers officials.

Those ongoing issues prompted Bauer and the city council to examine regional rates for similar facilities. They discovered Zumbrota's fee schedules were well below industry standard.

The unanimous vote held Thursday, without a public hearing, will increase Dairy Farmers' 2015 BOD fees from $15.25 per 100 pounds to $20.25. The fee will be increased again in 2016, from $20.25 to $25.25.

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"We certainly weren't stuck in the mud with those numbers, but we were flexible with what we were doing," Bauer said of the three-person committee, which recommended those numbers to the city council. "They felt in looking at what other communities were charging, we were very fair. We're going up $5 this year and $5 more next year, and we'll still be one of the lowest in the area."

Dairy Farmers officials were not allowed to share their thoughts at Thursday's city council meeting, and Bauer said Sunday that he's yet to hear any feedback. The 2015 increase won't take effect until late February, after Dairy Farmers is sent a 30-day notice.

Lucy Schwartz, the company's plant manager in Zumbrota, declined comment Monday, directing comments to Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs Monica Massey, who was not immediately available.

Schwartz previously said that the plant employs 106 and processes 8 million pounds of milk per week. A recent study says the facility's economic impact on Zumbrota is about $100 million per year.

The Zumbrota plant is one of 33 across the country associated with Dairy Farmers of America. A national representative from the Missouri headquarters visited Zumbrota last summer to address the city's ongoing concerns, but Bauer said the situation has yet to warrant a visit from state health officials.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has issued a relevant state permit authorizing Zumbrota to host its dairy plant. Dairy Farmers was then issued a permit by the city to operate. When the company violates the city's permit, it puts the city out of compliance with the state.

MPCA officials have been in contact with Zumbrota about the situation, but appear satisfied with the city's response thus far, Bauer said.

At least one Zumbrota resident has claimed that the plant's excessive discharge, which led to the fines, had such a strong odor it made him physically ill.

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