Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Diligence lacking in campground sewer project

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 3/25/18

TOWER— It appears the Tower City Council committed to spending at least $175,000 for a sewer extension to the Hoodoo Point Campground without verifying the need for the project, or without …

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Diligence lacking in campground sewer project

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TOWER— It appears the Tower City Council committed to spending at least $175,000 for a sewer extension to the Hoodoo Point Campground without verifying the need for the project, or without understanding how it could impact plans for future economic development in the city.

Work is already well underway on the project, which is expected to be completed in late spring. The price tag for the total project is $529,000, which includes the cost of connecting the campground to the municipal sewer system operated by the Tower-Breitung Wastewater Board. Other work includes repairing and replacing sewer laterals throughout portions of the campground, installing a new grinder station and replacing or repairing more than 1,000 feet of other sewer lines in and around the campground. The project also included new electrical service in the new campsites and other necessary electrical upgrades.

Much of that work appears to have been needed to replace aging sewage infrastructure at the campground, some of which dates back to the 1960s. Recent televising of the lines revealed numerous cracks and breaks which were likely allowing a significant amount of freshwater runoff into the system.

The city began considering the project in late 2016, after the Hoodoo Point Campground manager suggested improving several overflow sites at the campground to serve seasonal RVs. The campground has a significant waiting list for seasonal RVs, so the facility manager suggested the upgrade, which is expected to generate an additional $17,000-$18,000 in revenue annually.

It remains unclear, however, why city officials chose to abandon the three pressurized mounds that have provided sewage treatment for the campground and the adjacent airport. The mounds are much newer than the rest of the campground sewage infrastructure, having been built in 1992. The Timberjay has asked city officials for an explanation of the rationale for the decision, but City Clerk-Treasurer Linda Keith confirmed last week that the city does not intend to answer that question, or any other questions associated with the project, a highly unusual decision for a governmental body.

The three separate mounds were designed to treat a combined total of up to 9,500 gallons per day on a year-round basis, which is well in excess of the flow that should be coming from the campground. According to city engineer Jason Chopp, of SEH, upon replacement of old sewer lines, total anticipated flow from the campground during its roughly five-and-a-half months of operation shouldn’t exceed 6,000 gallons per day, even with the addition of seven new seasonal sites. Sewage flow from the municipal airport is minimal, amounting to less than 100 gallons per day.

While city officials have provided no official explanation, the Timberjay has learned that some city officials had noticed that the ground was soggy near at least one of the three mounds in the past couple summers. But it appears that the city made no effort to ascertain why that might be so, or if it was connected to the possible overflow or failure of one or more of the mounds. The past two summers have been wetter than in recent years and given the poor condition of the sewage collection lines in the campground, the mounds might have received excess infiltration of surface runoff.

The treatment system was designed to provide a year of rest for each of the mounds every three years. The flow to each of the three mounds was supposed to be controlled by valves that could be shut periodically, since only two of the mounds were necessary at any one time to handle the anticipated flow. But the Timberjay has learned that the valve to one of the mound systems was stuck in the open position and could not be closed, which meant the mound did not receive a rest period like the other two. The Timberjay asked the city engineer whether he was aware of the stuck valve, and whether the valve could have been replaced at relatively minimal cost, but city officials declined to answer.

A Nov. 14, 2016, report from city engineer Jason Chopp recommends that the “city consider evaluating the need to connect the campground to the city’s sewer system,” but city officials declined to answer whether such an evaluation was ever completed.

Chopp makes no mention in his report of soggy conditions, a stuck valve, or other such evidence as reason for an evaluation. Instead, Chopp said he was making his recommendation “based on the perceived age and lack of available information on file with St. Louis County on the septic system.”

On Oct. 16, 2016, Chopp had informed Keith that St. Louis County had no permit or permit application on file for the system. An email from a county information specialist appears to confirm that claim, indicating that the county only had a diagram of the system on file.

Yet the Timberjay was able to obtain the full permit and application for the campground’s mound system from St. Louis County Environmental Services earlier this month, so it’s not entirely clear what exactly the city’s engineer had requested.

The permit, number 62-15-228-19, was for a three-mound commercial/industrial septic system to serve the airport and the campground. Former county septic inspector Rich Hyrkas and former City Clerk Tim Kotzian both signed the permit on March 17, 1992, and the final inspection was completed on Oct. 6, 1992. The system’s 24-hour design flow was 9,500 gallons, and the total project cost was $62,000.

The county information specialist who responded to Chopp suggested he contact the local sanitarian, John Lindquist, to see if he had any information on the system. Lindquist said he had no recollection that Chopp had contacted him back in November 2016, but said he couldn’t rule it out, either. Lindquist has since retired from the county.

Lindquist said he was familiar with the mound system in question and had inspected the three mounds a few times over the years, mostly out of curiosity. “Last time I checked, they were functioning as designed,” he said, although he acknowledged that given the soils in the area he suspected the system might not meet current state guidelines. The system is governed, however, by St. Louis County because its design flow is under 10,000 gallons per day. Lindquist said such a system would probably be considered “non-conforming” by the county. “That means it’s considered good enough to keep going until it quits, but then we would need to do something else,” he said.

Lindquist said he hadn’t followed the latest developments with the campground project but urged the city to ensure that any forced main they do install has sufficient capacity to take additional flow from other nearby cabins, particularly those on city lease lots near the airport. “In my opinion, as the retired sanitarian for the area, I would tell them that they have a moral obligation to the lessees to get those people hooked up,” said Lindquist “They’re sitting in an ash swamp.”

The Timberjay argued similarly in an editorial last October, which urged the city to consider upgrades to the campground as part of a larger project to extend municipal sewer to more Lake Vermilion shoreline and do so as part of an overall project that included expansion of municipal sewage treatment capacity. By taking a more regional approach, the Timberjay argued, the city could increase their chances of obtaining grant dollars, similar to the experience at Crane Lake and Lake Kabetogama, where millions in state grant dollars have helped fund sewer projects near the border. Instead, the city is funding the project entirely through the issuance of bonds, which the city hopes to pay for through primarily through rate hikes at the campground

Bigger costs ahead

While the cost of connecting the campground to the Tower-Breitung wastewater district is significant, it pales in comparison to the expected cost to expand the capacity of the current municipal system. While eventual expansion of the system was likely, assuming that current development plans move forward, the connection of the campground consumed roughly 40 percent of the remaining capacity in the system, which could limit the city’s ability to approve any significant new development beyond the 20 town homes slated for construction later this year.

That could be a significant setback for prospects for a new hotel and additional residential development that Orlyn Kringstad and his development firm Tower Vision 2025 has been planning.

While the Tower-Breitung Wastewater Board has taken tentative steps forward in initial planning for a sewage capacity expansion, initial discussions with officials from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency suggest the process will be complicated, expensive, and time-consuming. Indeed, given the timelines for funding application, it appears unlikely that the TBWB could bring additional capacity online before 2021.

Meanwhile, though the price tag isn’t clear, it is likely that any significant expansion will cost a million dollars or more. And while the city of Tower and Breitung Township normally share the expenses of improvements to the joint system, Breitung officials have repeatedly warned that township residents may not be willing to pay for a project that they see as forced on them by questionable decisions made by officials in Tower.

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