Sewer project squeaks aheadA multimillion dollar sewer project that has created sharp controversy in Douglas County cleared two major hurdles this week – barely. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens’ Board voted 5-4 at its November meeting Tuesday to issue an agency permit for the $26 million third phase of the Central Lakes Region Sanitary District’s proposed wastewater treatment plant.
By: By Al Edenloff, Editor and Mike Enright, Staff Reporter, Alexandria Echo Press
A multimillion dollar sewer project that has created sharp controversy in Douglas County cleared two major hurdles this week – barely.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Citizens’ Board voted 5-4 at its November meeting Tuesday to issue an agency permit for the $26 million third phase of the Central Lakes Region Sanitary District’s proposed wastewater treatment plant.
Phase III would include the areas surrounding lakes Irene and Miltona.
The citizens’ board had to vote twice before approving CLRSD’s proposed facility after the first vote resulted in a 4-4 split with one member, Donald Schiefelbein, abstaining.
Schiefelbein initially abstained after saying he personally did not support the project even though it appeared to meet all MPCA rules and technical requirements.
After being informed by legal counsel that they either had to approve or reject the CLRSD’s permit application, board members voted again.
Schiefelbein voted in favor of issuing a permit.
“My vote in no way endorses the idea that a pipe is the solution to this problem,” he said.
Other board members also expressed doubts about the project.
“My concern is the effectiveness of this solution,” said Dr. Daniel Foley before voting against the permit. “It’s not so much the cost, but it doesn’t seem to be doing anything.”
Prior to voting on a permit, the citizens’ board determined that the CLRSD did not need to undertake more in-depth study about the environmental impact of the project.
That motion was approved on a 7-2 vote Tuesday afternoon, following a three-hour public hearing in St. Paul, which included testimony from MPCA staff, CLRSD representatives and members of the general public.
Echoing earlier recommendations made in previous reports, MPCA staff again advised the board to approve the proposed central sewer system.
Among the members of the public who commented on the project was Kitty Tepley, of the Todd County Soil and Water Conservation District.
In her testimony, Tepley said MPCA staff underestimated the potential damage the CLRSD’s proposed treatment plant would do to the Long Prairie River.
“Adding phosphorus to the river reach will impact the river,” she said. “If you don’t require an [Environmental Impact Statement], I strongly recommend that you require the proposed facility to treat down to the .30 [phosphorus] limit. You have that authority.”
Representatives from the nonprofit Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy also spoke before the board Tuesday afternoon, critiquing how MPCA staff calculated the effects building the CLRSD facility could have on the phosphorus levels of the bodies of water it would be discharging into.
“This method of determining whether additional phosphorus is contributed is not scientifically based,” said Kris Sigford, MCEA’s water quality program director. “Looking for a trophic shift in Lake Pepin is kind of an absurd way to determine if that would contribute to the impairment of the lake.”
MPCA staff disagreed with both Tepley’s and the MCEA’s assertions.
After attending the board’s meeting in St. Paul, Jerry Haggenmiller, CLRSD chairman, said he was pleased that the citizens’ board decided to issue the district a permit.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the CLRSD will immediately seek construction bids for the proposed facility, Haggenmiller added.
“Now we need to sit down and look at the costs because that is something we’re hearing from all the constituents,” he said. “We also need to look at alternatives [wastewater treatment systems] to see if there is a way to save all the people in the district some money.”
The next step, Haggenmiller said, will be for CLRSD officials to meet with the Minnesota Public Facilities Authority, a state agency that helps local governments secure funding for large public infrastructure projects, such as a centralized sewer system, to review both the cost-effectiveness and the overall affordability of the plan.
Also at the citizens’ board meeting, Keith Baldwin of the Miltona-based anti-sewer group the Citizens League for Environmental and Economic Responsibility (CLEER), said he was disappointed by the citizens’ board’s ruling.
“Clearly, board members wanted to say no, but they were bound by legal restraints,” he said. “They could not address the project itself, ruling strictly on the discharge into the Long Prairie River and if it met all the MPCA requirements.”
Baldwin said CLEER is not giving up in its attempts to stop the sewer project, indicating the group may take legal action “within days.”