The city of Osakis filed a lawsuit in Ramsey County District Court on Wednesday, Sept. 30, challenging the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s intention to enforce what the city says is an erroneous permit limit on the city’s wastewater treatment facility.

For more than eight years, Osakis has been at odds with the MPCA over a phosphorus limit that was included in the city’s wastewater discharge permit issued in 2012. According to city leaders, the MPCA has acknowledged that it erred in including the phosphorus limit at issue by improperly applying water quality standards applicable only to lakes to a wetland, yet the agency has refused to remove the limit or correct its error in a manner consistent with federal and state law.

The MPCA has informed the city that it intends to enforce the limit when it takes effect in July 2021, which would subject the city to potential fines and penalties for non-compliance with the limit unless the courts intervene. According to the city’s engineering study, the costs to upgrade its treatment facility to comply with the limit could range between $8 million to $13 million — a cost that would fall on Osakis residents and businesses.

“This is a huge expense for our small city,” said Osakis Mayor Keith Emerson in a news release. “The limit was imposed by the MPCA in error and would require us to spend taxpayer money on facility upgrades that would do little to improve or protect water quality in our area.”

City leaders say the lawsuit requests the court do what MPCA will not: Relieve the city and its taxpayers of the burden of complying with the erroneous limit in the city’s existing permit while the parties participate in the public process to determine the terms and conditions in the city’s next permit, which is due for renewal.

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The lawsuit is necessary to prevent the MPCA from enforcing a permit limit "for which no valid scientific rationale has ever been subjected to the MPCA’s own public permitting procedures as required by federal and state law," according to Julie Liew, media and communications director with Flaherty and Hood, the law firm representing the city of Osakis.

City leaders say they're committed to environmental protection and improving water quality in the Lake Osakis watershed. The city has invested significant public resources in monitoring water quality affected by its treatment facility’s discharge, including Faille Lake, and has pursued cost-effective measures, both at its facility and elsewhere in the watershed, to protect water quality, according to Liew.

"The city has and will continue to participate fully in the MPCA’s permitting process to ensure these objectives are met in the city’s next permit," Liew said. "However, the city will not stand by and accept MPCA’s enforcement of an erroneous permit limit that would not benefit the environment and would impose financial hardship on the city and its residents and businesses."

“We have been trying to work with the MPCA on this matter for years, but they have been unwilling to correct their mistakes, follow the process and issue a reasonable permit limit,” Emerson said. “I cannot comprehend why a rural city of 1,750 people must sue MPCA to correct its mistake and follow the permit process. It is beyond frustrating. As mayor, I have to stick up for my town and try to get MPCA to do the right thing.”

The MPCA wasn't immediately available for a response by press time.