Birds Eye Foods Inc. will install a new treatment system and take other steps to deal with groundwater contamination caused by its spraying of wastewater on farm fields in southwestern Michigan, state officials said Wednesday.
The Department of Natural Resources and Environment said it had reached an agreement with the company over pollution from its Fennville cannery, which produces fruit fillings, sauces and glazes made from cherries, blueberries and apples.
"The actions to be taken will provide safe drinking water to affected area residents and fully address the environmental issues ... while assuring the continued presence of Birds Eye as an important component of the local economy," said Rebecca Humphries, the department's director.
Since the 1960s, Birds Eye has disposed of wastewater from its plant by agricultural spraying -- for years a common practice in the industry.
It was believed that salt, sugar and other organic matter in the wastewater would restore nutrients to the soil, while impurities would be filtered out as the wastewater percolated down through the dirt and into aquifers.
However, scientists determined in the last decade that too much spraying can contaminate groundwater.
Numerous residents in communities where Birds Eye has sprayed say it has caused their wells to produce water that is discolored and foul-smelling, and has elevated levels of potential toxins such as arsenic and iron.
Under the agreement with the state, Birds Eye agreed to install a new $3.8 million wastewater treatment system and spray only during the growing season, the department said. At other times, the wastewater will be discharged to Fennville's municipal treatment works.
Also, the company will complete an investigation of the groundwater contamination and do what is necessary to fix it.
Birds Eye will continue providing bottled water to people whose well water doesn't meet health standards until Fennville completes an extension of its water supply network.
A public hearing is scheduled for Aug. 17 on a proposed groundwater discharge permit enabling Birds Eye to install the new system at its plant.
"We're pleased that we've reached an agreement with the state that will lead to environmental improvement in the region," said a statement from Pinnacle Foods Group LLC, which bought Birds Eye last November.
The company said it had helped obtain a government grant enabling Fennville to install an iron filtration system for its water supply.