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Feds tell Duluth to fix sewers
The EPA orders Duluth and the WLSSD to complete a costly effort to stop sewage overflows.
By John Myers
Duluth News Tribune

No more sewage overflows.

That's the order from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the city of Duluth and the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District after years of overflows into the St. Louis River and Lake Superior.

The order, received Monday from the EPA's Region 5 office in Chicago, will force the city and WLSSD to spend millions of dollars in coming years to stop rainwater from leaking into sanitary sewage pipes.

It's rain water and melting snow that overwhelm the sewage collection system, sending millions of gallons of diluted but untreated sewage into the environment at manholes and pump stations.

After public outcry about multiple sewage spills in 2003, EPA now is demanding that the city hasten its efforts to solve the problem.

The city and WLSSD "shall immediately take all viable and practicable actions necessary to cease and desist all sanitary sewer overflows from points in their sanitary sewer system," the 14-page order states.

Jo Lynn Traub, EPA Region 5 water resources director, said sewage overflows are illegal under the federal Clean Water Act. Under the order, the city and WLSSD have 60 days to craft a plan to stop the overflows and to submit a work schedule.

"EPA recognizes that the problems with this system did not arise overnight, and it will take some time to fully correct them. This action is the first step in a long-range solution to the problem," Traub said.

The city already has worked for a decade to stop the overflows by paying to help homeowners disconnect their footing drains from the sanitary sewage system. But it became clear during the past year that disconnecting storm drains, for which the city has already spent $8 million, won't solve the problem.

Nearly 3,000 of the city's 25,000 homes have seen their foundation drains disconnected from the sewage system, but that work alone "will not get us there on the schedule laid out in the permit," said Mark Winson, Duluth chief administrative officer.

So the city now is looking at replacing leaky sewer lines between homes and streets that serve to funnel clean water into the sanitary system. The city also might construct giant storage tanks in key areas to collect sewage during rainstorms, preventing overflows.

Duluth has asked Minnesota legislators for $5 million in 2004 to help pay for sewage storage tanks at 52nd and 60th avenues east to hold back overflows during rainstorms -- about half the cost of the projects.

Solving an even more vexing overflow problem along the city's Lakewalk could cost as much as $40 million to build storage capacity.

And while the city and WLSSD are seeking state and federal money to help foot the bill, it's clear it will cost more in coming years to flush a toilet in Duluth.

"We need to decide what's the best mix... of solutions to minimize what the cost will be to the rate payer," Winson said. "But ultimately, the difference is going to have to be picked up by the residents of Duluth."

Winson said it's too early to give a total price tag to fix the problem or to estimate how much sewage rates will increase to stop the overflow problem.

EPA officials declined to say Monday what will happen if the city fails to meet any agreed-upon deadline, but options include steep fines and a moratorium on new construction.

"I don't think it's going to get to that point," Winson said.

The new EPA order goes beyond the city and WLSSD's current permit with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. It demands that the city totally eliminate, not just control, all overflows.

"That isn't a surprise, but it is different than what we had been dealing with," said Kurt Soderberg, WLSSD executive director.

The current state permit requires the problem to be effectively solved by 2007. It's not clear if the EPA will demand faster action.

The city operates most of the sewage collection system while the WLSSD operates a few main lines and the sewage treatment plant in Lincoln Park/West End. Homeowners are responsible for fixing any problems from the home to the street.

Duluth is one of dozens of U.S. cities that have problems with sewage overflows during storms. But among cities that have separate sewage and stormwater systems, Duluth is among the worst offenders. That's because of the city's topography -- excess water runs down the hill fast -- and the age of the system.

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