PCA looks into WLSSD problems
By John Myers
Duluth News Tribune
State regulators are looking at a string of recent mishaps
and sewage spills in the Western Lake Superior Sanitary
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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.