BLACKFOOT, February 22, 2019 — Who among us has not sniffed the aroma of hash browns wafting through the air on a breezy day while driving on Highway 26 in Blackfoot?
It’s an odd thought, but places have smells which are just as much a part of their identity as what they look like or sound like. Whether it’s the acrid bite of smog in Los Angeles or Denver, or rotting vegetable reek of the pulp paper plant in Lewiston, just about everywhere has its own scent.
Idaho has its own scents, like the smell of the sagebrush out on the lava plains on a warm day or the mouth-watering aroma of buttery scalloped potatoes while driving past Basic American Foods (BAF).
I bring this topic up because I’ve been reviewing the air quality permit application that BAF recently submitted to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. Yes, even potato plants must suffer the inequities of environmental regulation. I did a fair amount of environmental science in a previous life, so it’s fairly easy for me to spot if anything’s out-of-whack on this kind of paperwork.
There’s nothing lurking in the closet over at BAF environmentally. It’s a routine thing to update a permit when a big piece of equipment is added or subtracted from the plant. That’s the case here: the plant is removing a potato dehydrator.
Mind you, potato plants are not exactly the stuff that environmental horror stories are made of. Regardless, it is interesting to see what the regulators look at inside a facility that handles spuds on the industrial scale.
The family of nitrogen oxides get measured and regulated because they contribute to acid rain. Of course, the smog cousins of sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide are on the list along with that perennial favorite of environmentalists, the volatile organic compounds.
I was surprised that lead was on the list of measured and regulated air pollutants. Regardless, according to the permit application, BAF’s estimated lead emissions for one year was approximately 2.74 pounds. That’s hardly enough to write home about. Most of that lead is from the potatoes themselves, which pick it up from the soil.
Yes, there’s lead in potatoes but the amount is a tenth to a hundredth of what’s in most fish. Lead is actually in everything we eat, just in trace amounts. We’re talking amounts that are so small that they have no effect on biological systems.
So why bother with measuring lead at all? One reason is because lead is real health concern. For that reason alone, it is examined everywhere. But it’s not anything to worry about in a place like Blackfoot. Now, if there were a metal-plating plant or a copper-refining plant in town, you might actually see some numbers that I would worry about. Those are the businesses that you want to keep an eye on.
Forget lead. It’s a red herring. The number one air pollutant at BAF, which uses relatively clean-burning natural gas as fuel, is particulate matter. For the local spud plant here in Blackfoot, it’s particulate matter in the 10 micrometer size range. We’re talking spud dust here, folks. Like any dust, it’s bad to breath too much of it.
In looking over the air quality regulations a place like BAF has to follow, I noted that the plant has to keep a log of odor complaints from the public – and trust me, regulators do inspect those things. I’m having a hard time, though, imagining anyone complaining about the smell of a potato plant.
I’ve lived in towns with chemical plants and pulp paper plants. Those kinds of businesses really stink. It’s no surprise I find the smell of potato processing plants rather nice in comparison.
I suppose that hash-browny smell might send a fanatical dieter off the deep end. I can see the Facebook post now: “Hey, Basic American Food, do something about that breakfast home fries smell. You’re making me hungry!”