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Great Lakes Article:

PCA looks into WLSSD problems
By John Myers
Duluth News Tribune
08/09/03


State regulators are looking at a string of recent mishaps and sewage spills in the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District system.

Roger Nelson, pollution control specialist for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said his agency probably will take some sort of regulatory action against the WLSSD.

That action could be as little as a warning or a notice of violation, or it could be as stern as a monetary penalty or a stipulation agreement requiring the WLSSD to make specific changes by a certain date.

But any action will come only after a thorough investigation and extensive interaction with the WLSSD, said Nelson, who oversees the Duluth sewage district.

"I've been getting calls from people who expect us to take some sort of immediate action. But that's not going to happen," he said. "We have to get all the facts first and see where this fits."

Both the WLSSD and the PCA said heavy fines aren't likely because the money would ultimately come from local taxpayers and rate payers. Both say the money would be better spent fixing problems.

Since July 6, more than6.5 million gallons of untreated sewage have overflowed into the environment, the result of a series of unrelated mishaps and electrical, equipment and design failures.

The WLSSD is undertaking a major internal review of the incidents.

And since April, well before the recent spills occurred, the agency has been forming a 10-year plan to replace, upgrade and repair its wastewater treatment system that could cost more than $72 million. Nearly all of that money would go to upgrade the existing system. About $3 million would go toward expanding it.

More than $38 million would be spent between 2004 and 2012, specifically on replacing and upgrading pumping stations and pipes coming into the 25-year-old treatment plant.

The repair budget was expected to be approved by the WLSSD board this month, with work to start next year.

"Unfortunately, we had these problems before we got into it," said Kurt Soderberg, WLSSD executive director.

More than $500,000 is planned for upgrading monitoring and control systems at pumping stations in Cloquet, Scanlon and Duluth -- where some of the recent overflows have occurred. But those overflows have exposed problems that could require even more spending.

For example, the long-range plan doesn't include backup power generators, which may be required at pumping stations to make sure they don't shut down, causing overflows. And the planned budget doesn't include increased staff that might be needed to keep a better eye on maintenance and monitoring.

"Maybe it's not just fixing the problems, but then how we watch and inspect the system," Soderberg said.

It's not clear if the WLSSD can make the new fixes needed, along with the maintenance already planned, without raising the rates it charges for wastewater treatment to municipalities and major industries. Normal maintenance has cost about $4 million annually, Soderberg said. Within a decade, that could hit$10 million.

After years of stable wastewater treatment rates, the cost to flush toilets and keep plant waste flowing may start going up in 2004, and surely in following years.

"The pressure to keep rates down from our customers isn't going to go away. But they also want reliability, and we have to make sure the system works" to protect the environment, Soderberg said. "In the long run, we're talking 2.5 percent to 4 to 5 percent per year just to take care of inflation and the increased capital expenditures for the system."

In the short term, Soderberg said, steps have been taken to prevent problems that have occurred in recent weeks. That includes installing automatic switching devices that can move pumping stations to a second source of electricity. Those were installed at Cloquet, Scanlon and Duluth pumping stations.

"The one at the Sappi plant in Cloquet already was in. We should be done with the others" Friday, Soderberg said, noting that such a system might have prevented the 1.1-million-gallon spill at the Scanlon station last month.

The PCA's Nelson said the recent problems at the WLSSD seem to be in "a gray area" between preventable violations of the WLSSD operating permit and unavoidable acts of nature or freak accidents.

Lightning strikes, cars hitting power poles and pumps that simply don't work when they are turned on are some of those problems.

While the problems do not appear to be caused by neglect, Nelson said, the state will look at whether the series of spills means the WLSSD needs to undertake better maintenance or better plan their control systems.

Nelson said some of the recent overflow causes seem unavoidable. "But they also have had problems before, which might suggest they should have looked into the issues more before this happened," he said.

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