Now that Ultra Green has shut its doors, the big queston is: Who is going to clean up the molding bales of wheat straw piled behind the defunct plant?
The disappointment surrounding the closing of the Ultra Green Packaging straw pulp manufacturing and molding facility is still fairly new, as the plant shut down operations on July 2 of 2015.
The loss of about 40 jobs, and potentially many future jobs promised by the company, has adversely affected Devils Lake, as it would any small community. But now that Ultra Green has shut its doors, the big queston is: Who is going to clean up the molding bales of wheat straw piled behind the defunct plant?
Ultra Green planned to use the wheat straw in order to make recyclable materials, such as serving utensils, plates, bake ware and bowls, among other environmentally friendly, sustainable products.
Unfortunately, the company never reached the anticipated level of success its management and the city of Devils Lake envisioned.
Now what’s left of the venture is a pile of wheat straw that North Dakota’s Division of Waste Management has determined to be “trade waste.” If the toppling piles of wheat straw bales were merely an eyesore, one would still expect that it should be cleaned up by the company in a reasonable time frame following the shutdown of the plant. But the molding bales of straw present something more insidious: a potential health threat.
The mold that commonly grows on wheat is known as fusarium, and according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, the range of effects resulting from fusarium exposure "includes allergic disease and pneumonia." The report also indicates that "fusarial pneumonia occurs almost exclusively in severely immunocompromised patients, and pneumonia occurs in almost 50 percent of cases. Preventing fusariosis relies on detection and treatment, and decreasing environmental exposure to Fusaria (via air and water)."
The clean up
Ultra Green attempted to eliminate the mold problem first by giving away the bales of straw after shutting down operations, then by burning the material. Reportedly, the company stopped burning the waste after receiving complaints that the burn was uncontrolled, and therefore potentially hazardous.
According of Steve Tillotson of The Division of Waste Management, a "burn variance" would need to be issued by the state of North Dakota in order to burn the material before such action could legally be undertaken.
"We wouldn't issue a burn variance because the material is within city limits," Tillotson said.
A letter from The Division of Waste Management to Chief Financial Officer Jon Peters of Ultra Green, dated Dec. 28, addressed potential regulatory violations at the site.
"According to complaint(s) and our investigation, there are very large accumulations of moldy straw emitting odors, potentially causing or contributing to respiratory issues for nearby business owners and harboring rats,” the letter stated.
The letter also stated that "the bales were determined to be a trade waste which is restricted under Section 33-15-04-01 of the North Dakota Air Pollution Control Rules. It appears that Ultra Green Packaging, Inc. is in violation of the North Dakota Solid Waste Management Rules and may be subject to enforcement."
The Journal attempted to contact Peters at Ultra Green's Plymouth, Minn., headquarters several times. None of the messages were returned.
Randy Bracken of Dakota Tree Services, which is located directly behind the moldy bales, inquired about the burning of the waste. "I asked if it was a controlled burn, and they said 'no.' It bothered me.
You're not supposed to be allowed to do that in the city limits in North Dakota. If they're able to burn, what stops me from burning scrap firewood, (etc.)?"
Bracken also reports that he and others working for him have experienced sore throats and other issues. "We had some guys working the weekends collecting firewood, and they said they had sore throats.
Over the last few years, I've had a lot of sore throats, I just really didn't understand it could be from mold."
Bracken also detailed troubles he's had with rodent infestation. "I've been noticing rats for two or three years. I find them right out on the gravel. I have five kids, so whenever they come around I tell them to watch out if you see any mice or rats. I was more worried about rabies than mold."
Though the company shut its doors in July, mold has reportedly been growing on the straw bales for a while. Jeff Halverson of Halverson's Motor Sports, which is also located next to the site, says that he has been getting treatment by a doctor for mold-related symptoms for years.
"I've got to get the nerves in the back of my head and my neck and shoulders blocked,” Halverson said. “I do that about twice a year, I go to the Mayo Clinic for that. I've got sinus infections year-round. I'm treated for basically nerves, sinuses."
Halverson says that he reached out to several city officials as well as Ultra Green. "I've talked to the fire chief, police chief, sheriff's department, people from the city … they've all tried to do what they can, but they've just been running into a wall. In the midsummer I talked to several guys (at Ultra Green) - whoever would answer the phone - asked them when they were going to move the stuff out. They said they didn't know, and since August I haven't been able to talk to anybody."
Halverson also notes that the situation was exacerbated when the waste was burned. "When they started burning it, I got lightheaded, headaches. I actually had to get medication for it."
In an effort to get a comment from anyone at Ultra Green during the time the company operated in Devils Lake, the Journal contacted former COO Bob Morando, who left the company in 2014. However, Morando wasn't willing to talk about his former company.
"I have nothing to say about Ultra Green,” Morando said.
Why you should care
The lack of action by Ultra Green, as well as the inability of officials to enforce regulations designed to protect those who live and work in the city, has resulted in an unauthorized waste site that may be adversely affecting the health of those located near it. That is potentially very bad news for anyone who lives or works in an area close to businesses that potentially produce dangerous waste. Does the city have the ability to effectively regulate the actions of such businesses?
Currently, the City of Devils Lake is in litigation with Ultra Green Packaging concerning millions of dollars of incentives that the city budgeted in order to lure the company to the city, as well as the waste disposal cost.
The Journal will follow the situation closely and will report on the outcome when the matter is finally resolved.
Sidebar: What was the Ultra Green plan?
Ultra Green Packaging had what seemed to be a winning idea: Take the leavings from harvested wheat, known as wheat straw, and turn it into recyclable products that would be both eco-friendly and sustainable.
The potential benefit to Devils Lake was clear. Ultra Green convinced the city that hundreds of jobs could potentially be created after researching well over 200 communities.
The city responded by offering millions of dollars in incentives, including $1,000 for every employee over 100 that Ultra Green hired.
At its peak, Ultra Green had somewhere near 40 employees in Devils Lake, shutting down three years after opening the plant.
Because officials at Ultra Green are generally unwilling to discuss the failed Devils Lake operation, it is difficult to determine why exactly the venture was unsuccessful.
What is known is that the city is entangled in legal action with Ultra Green after the company left behind both a financial and environmental mess that has yet to be cleaned up.
“I have five kids, so whenever they come around I tell them to watch out if you see any mice or rats. I was more worried about rabies than mold.”
Dakota Tree Services