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Brandon sewer system sends millions of gallons of wastewater into Whiskey Lake

City officials say the water is mostly storm water; residents are irate

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A sign was posted on the lower portion of a post at the Whiskey Lake public access that says water in the area may be contaminated by a temporary overflow of a wastewater facility treatment pond.
Jody Hanson / Alexandria Echo Press

BRANDON — The City of Brandon has released about three million gallons of not-entirely-treated wastewater from its treatment ponds so far, saying the system was overwhelmed by snow and rains this winter and spring, and that the ponds were in danger of collapse.

Public Works Superintendent Ryan Skillings said that when he checked the ponds Monday morning, the water levels had risen above the rocks designed to prevent the banks from eroding. Knowing that such high levels could cause the pond banks to fail, he alerted the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and then began pumping water out of the system's third pond into a series of wetlands.

Wastewater is used water. It includes substances such as human waste, food scraps, oils, soaps and chemicals, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. 

The wastewater will end up in Whiskey Lake, where at least some residents are not happy about it.

“If I have a faulty septic systems, I’m faulted, I’m charged," said Pete Pittel, who has owned a home on the lake for 23 years. "My septic system can’t be overflowing into the lake, but they can do it? They’re allowed to? It’s OK for them?”

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He said discharges have happened before and that the city should fix the problem.

The city's sewage treatment system consists of pipes that carry wastewater from homes and business to a lift station, which then transfers it into three ponds. As the wastewater moves through the three ponds, solids drop to the bottom. After the third pond, the city would normally spray it onto farm fields. However, the rainy spring has made those fields too wet, so the city has nowhere to bring the excess water.

Skillings said he would rather not release it into Whiskey Lake, but it was either that or allow the banks to collapse.

“It would be catastrophic and millions and millions of dollars to fix,” he said. “I don’t want to be doing this neither, but this is what has to be done.”

He began pumping out the third pond on Monday. On Tuesday, the city hand-delivered notices to residents on the lake, advising them to avoid contact with the water if possible until 48 hours after the discharge has stopped.

"If you come in contact with the affected water or other potentially contaminated water sources, take responsible precautions," the notice said. "You should bathe with soap and water and wash clothes thoroughly as soon as possible."

Pittel said he was not happy about being informed after the fact.

"They didn't give us a chance to protest it," he said.

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But Skillings and City Clerk Deb Grommesh said it was an emergency situation, and they got word out as soon as they could.

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This photo was taken Wednesday, May 4 near the Whiskey Lake public access.
Jody Hanson / Alexandria Echo Press

Skillings said he has started to see the top of the rocks in the primary pond again, and that he is not sure how much longer the city will have to release water into the wetlands. It could be a week or more, and he said he couldn't promise that it would be over by the Minnesota Fishing Opener on May 14.

He said he started testing the water from the third pond on May 4 for a variety of pollutants, including fecal coliform, total suspended solids, nitrogen and ammonia. He said he doubts the tests will show much pollution because so much of the water the city is releasing is from rain and snowmelt.

Rain and snowmelt shouldn't be running through the city's wastewater treatment system, and he and Grommesh said that like many cities, it does get into the system. Some property owners may attach their sump pumps into their sewage systems instead of pumping basement water into their yards, they said. They have examined the system and repaired many leaks, they said. But it continues to be a problem.

The Brandon wastewater plant is permitted to treat 90,000 gallons a day, but after an intense rainfall in April, it spiked to 200,000 gallons for two days, Skillings said. It exceeded capacity during the entire month, he said, with about 150,000 gallons a day running through it.

Pittel said he thinks the city doesn't have the capacity to support new development, and Grommesh said she has heard that complaint from more than one resident. About 20 or more years ago, she said, Brandon's sewer system wasn't able to keep up with development and so construction had to stop under a state order. However, the city has done extensive work on the system and installed a larger lift system and is able to handle growth again.

This is not the first time the city has had to release wastewater, but it doesn't happen often. Skillings said the last time occurred in 2012.

Pittel said he remembers a release from 15-20 years ago that created massive algae blooms in Whiskey Lake, and that he is concerned about lake water quality this summer.

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“It looked like elephant poop on top of the lake,” he said.

Grommesh said she is familiar with that incident, and said that it happened because sewage was released directly from the transfer station and didn't go through the ponds first. That's not how the city handles discharges anymore, she said.

Reporter Karen Tolkkinen grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree in 1994, and was driven by curiosity to work her way around the United States.
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