Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Boosting wastewater capacity will take time

New MPCA rules and the need for more due diligence will likely delay funding application for at least a year

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 1/24/18

TOWER-SOUDAN— Expanding wastewater treatment capacity in Tower and Soudan may be more complicated than initially thought, and that’s likely to delay an application for funding for the project by …

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Boosting wastewater capacity will take time

New MPCA rules and the need for more due diligence will likely delay funding application for at least a year

Posted

TOWER-SOUDAN— Expanding wastewater treatment capacity in Tower and Soudan may be more complicated than initially thought, and that’s likely to delay an application for funding for the project by at least a year.

The news came at the most recent meeting of the Tower-Breitung Wastewater Board as system manager Matt Tuchel gave a report on his recent discussion with Steve Weiss, effluent permitting manager for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Tuchel said the rules have changed and that any increase in capacity could bring the wastewater district under stricter regulations and monitoring requirements than in the past, including the potential for mercury testing and discharge limits. “We’re going to be scrutinized, especially because it’s Lake Vermilion,” said Tuchel, referring to the destination of the system’s treated wastewater.

He said Weiss first recommended that the wastewater board commission an MPCA study that will assess the system’s needs, look at the amount of inflow and infiltration, and the impact of new emissions limits and how they might affect the requirements of any expansion. “We’re going to have to justify it,” he said.

Tuchel said the MPCA may require a cap on the system’s phosphorus discharge, which could require the wastewater district to incorporate mechanical treatment into its operations. Tuchel said he had no idea how much that might cost, but added, “It would probably be millions.”

The complexity of developing a plan for expanded capacity is almost certain to set the timeline back at least a year. The state’s Public Facilities Authority, which provides funding for most community water and wastewater treatment systems in Minnesota, only accepts applications once a year, in early March.

Tuchel said there’s no practical way to meet the 2018 deadline, given that the MPCA effluent study could take at least two months to complete. He said the study, which costs $1,550, isn’t required, it does provide valuable information that can bolster an application and ensure a better project.

Capacity at issue

Discussion of the need for expansion of the Tower-Breitung wastewater system moved from the back to the front burner recently, after the city of Tower opted to connect the Hoodoo Point Campground to the system. While the impact of the campground sewer extension won’t be known for sure until the end of next summer, the city’s engineer estimates the additional flow at about 6,000 gallons per day. Based on that number, it would leave the system about 9,000 gallons per day of capacity before hitting the 146,000 gallons per day limit preferred by state regulators. While the system is actually designed for 172,000 gallons per day, the MPCA generally limits wastewater treatment systems to 85 percent of their design capacity to curb violations of discharge standards.

With new development proposed for Tower, including town homes, a hotel, a new RV park, and additional housing and commercial development in future phases, the system’s remaining capacity won’t be adequate to meet the need. The first phase of harbor town homes is expected to consume 4,800 gallons of the remaining 9,000 gallons of capacity, according to engineers’ estimates, while the RV park is expected to consume about 2,000 gallons, leaving insufficient capacity for any other significant development.

Political divide

While a majority of the wastewater board appears to be in favor of an expansion, the agreement is not universal and could still pose a stumbling block. “If there is no hotel or no condominiums, you don’t need it,” commented Breitung Supervisor and wastewater board representative Chuck Tekautz, who implied that it might make sense to wait before moving forward with any expansion.

Tekautz also highlighted a political divide over the selection of an engineering firm. Breitung uses JPJ Engineering and Tekautz said he places a high value on loyalty. “I don’t see any reason to change engineering firms,” he said.

But representatives from Tower argued otherwise, and the matter quickly turned into a discussion of the past mistakes of both JPJ and the city of Tower’s preferred engineering firm, SEH.

Tuchel tried to calm the waters, suggesting that they could seek another engineering firm or conduct interviews in hopes of agreeing on a firm. The board adopted his recommendation, instructing him and Tower City Clerk Linda Keith to develop questions for interviews.

The issue of how to pay for the additional work is also likely to be a sticking point. Breitung supervisor Greg Dostert said he’s hearing some concern in Breitung Township about whether township residents should have to pay a portion of the cost of an expansion, given that the additional demand is coming from Tower.

Adding to the uncertainty is the financial condition of the wastewater district, which has been hit with significant unexpected costs in recent months that have drained the district’s coffers. The district cashed in its last CD recently to cover bills from December. “We’re running on fumes,” said Tekautz.

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