The recent Colorado State University study extolling the positive economic aspects of Larimer County’s large and small beer breweries — namely 938 direct jobs with $83.2 million in payroll — doesn’t address the downside of the county’s fastest-growing industry.
The study, completed by Colorado State University Economist Martin Shields, said that the six breweries studied — Anheuser-Busch, Equinox Brewing, Fort Collins Brewery, Funkwerks Inc., New Belgium Brewing Co. and Odell Brewing Co. — generate $263 million annually for the local economy and support 2,488 workers when spin-off jobs are factored into the equation.
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Not mentioned in the CSU study is the potential negative environmental impact of one of the county’s largest air polluters, the Anheuser-Busch plant in Fort Collins. About 25,500 pounds of on-site atmospheric ammonia releases and transfers were reported by the plant in 2008. The brewery’s yearly releases of ammonia averaged 19,700 pounds from 2003 to 2008, according to Environmental Protection Agency documents.
And while that might be something to raise eyebrows, if not noses, it apparently isn’t that unusual for large-scale breweries. The MillerCoors brewery in Golden reported 7,000 pounds of such releases in 2008 and more than 13,000 pounds in 2010.
Anheuser-Busch operates 12 breweries across the country. The company’s St. Louis, Mo., and Merrimack, N.H., plants averaged 49,500 and 15,104 pounds of yearly ammonia releases and transfers respectively from 2003 to 2008, according to EPA reports.
“Anheuser-Busch is committed to the environment and the communities in which we operate,” reads a prepared statement from the company given to the North Forty News. “We consistently report emission levels below government limits and continually work to reduce them from our manufacturing process.”
Ammonia is tracked as part of Anheuser-Busch’s Clean Air permit, but the quantities are not limited, said Christopher Dann, public information officer for the state’s Air Pollution Control Division. Ammonia, classified by the EPA as a toxic gas, is used as a refrigerant in a wide variety of industrial facilities, including breweries, dairies and cold storage warehouses.
Livestock operations are a more common source of large amounts of ammonia, contributing as much as 50 percent of emissions in Colorado, and there have been significant efforts made to regulate those releases. As part of a different study, CSU is heading a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded program designed to help agricultural interests identify the amount of such nitrogen-based chemicals they are releasing to the atmosphere. These emissions are contributing to detrimental nitrogen deposition in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Some people are particularly susceptible to ammonia exposure, but it dissipates very readily into the atmosphere and is also readily absorbed by plant material in natural growing processes. For most Larimer County residents, the increased ammonia exposure from the Anheuser-Busch plant could be no more significant than exposure to domestic ammonia-based cleaners.
VOCs part of the mix
The New Belgium plant in Fort Collins, which produces one-tenth the volume of beer that the Anheuser-Busch plant does, releases very little ammonia. Nick Ampe, an environmental health specialist with New Belgium, attributes that to the brewery’s closed-loop system for ammonia, which is used to cool glycol lines that in turn cool the large brewing tanks.
“We’re talking in the tens of pounds a year (of ammonia released),” Ampe said.
New Belgium, well known for its environmental practices, is not without hazardous air emissions of its own. Doug Bjorlo, the Larimer County environmental health specialist who oversees air emissions at New Belgium, said the plant is permitted to release 8 tons of volatile organic compounds a year, and in 2009 had 2.9 tons of such releases.
But those releases come from very different sources, Ampe said. He said most of New Belgium’s VOCs come from flaring and generating electricity from flammable gases as well as from bottle-finishing and crushing.
Control of VOCs is important beyond direct human exposure, Bjorlo said. For instance, these chemicals — including ammonia, although it is not regulated as a VOC in the United States — help create ground-level ozone.
“Portions of Larimer County, and many other counties up and down the Front Range, are in non-attainment status for ozone,” Bjorlo said. “As a part of that designation the state Air Pollution Control Division has established an early-action compact with counties to strive to see what can be done to reduce emissions of VOCs.”
Anheuser-Busch’s compliance record actually landed it on a High-Priority List of polluters compiled by the EPA, according to a 2011 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity. The plant was on the list for 18 months due to a non-compliance incident during a construction phase at the plant in 2002, said spokesmen at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the EPA.
That violation involved the fans installed on boilers in 2002, for which the company paid a civil penalty of $41,709 and a noncompliance penalty of $6,455, according to the health department. There were several subsequent reporting errors but no emission violations, as far as officials at the state and the EPA could determine.
The company subsequently installed $400,000 worth of new fans, and since that time has been an active partner in state and Larimer County environmental programs. Anheuser-Busch was named a Gold Leader in the state health department’s Environmental Leadership Program in 2009.
The state estimates that VOC releases for Larimer County from all regulated point sources — the larger facilities — account for 1,039 tons per year. That is surpassed by releases by motor vehicles at 3,166 tons, and non-point source solvent use, such as domestic activities, at 1,100 tons.
So while it’s important to track and take a periodic look at the big point sources, it’s also important to realize that our chemical exposure is also related to our own lifestyle.