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Cities object to high sewage treatment plant costs

Osakis Public Works Superintendent Kurt Haakinson told a Minnesota Senate committee that a state order to improve the city's sewage treatment plant would be expensive to follow. (File photo)

ST. PAUL — The 1,700-population community of Osakis could find itself paying $11 million in sewage treatment plant work, a cost one city official told Minnesota lawmakers the city cannot afford.

If the facility is built, Osakis Public Works Superintendent Kurt Haakinson said, his $100,000 annual wastewater budget would balloon by $80,000 a month to pay off construction costs.

And, he said, there would be "zero benefit to be gained on the city side."

The effort to keep phosphorus out of Lake Osakis and other nearby water likely would not be helped by the effort, Haakinson added.

His testimony to a state Senate environment committee came Wednesday, March 15, on legislation sponsored by Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson. His bill would place a moratorium on the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to order sewage treatment plant upgrades until there has been time to study how much they would improve water quality.

Newman said that 117 Minnesota cities face MPCA orders to make treatment plant changes. Examples he gave include $96.5 million for Rochester to make improvement, up to $30 million for Mankato, $18.4 million for Cokato and $12.5 million for Glencoe.

"How much are we cleaning up and how much is it going to cost in the long run?" Newman said is the question he wants answered before the MPCA can order upgrades again.

However, a MPCA official said the Newman legislation could result in lower water quality.

"This legislation is not reasonable," Greta Gauthier said. "We would characterize it as extreme."

Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton is seeking $167 million in grants and loans to help cities afford to upgrade treatment plants. Dayton has put a priority on increasing Minnesota's water quality.

"The pollutants we face today are very serious, indeed," Gauthier said, adding that the Newman bill would "result in gridlock" as more cities likely would take MPCA to court.

Gauthier also said she thinks a moratorium on treatment plant improvements could violate the federal Clean Water Act.

Another PCA official, Shannon Lotthammer, said the agency is working with cities that are concerned about treatment plant costs. For instance, she said, the agency has held many meetings with Osakis.

Sen. David Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, backs with the Newman bill, he said, because rural Minnesota communities cannot afford the "billions and billions" of dollars to fight phosphorus, mercury and other pollutants.

Newman said that a report released last month includes detailed a scientific look at phosphorus pollution, but it will take time to understand its implications.

"We are not in favor of pollution," Newman said. "What I am trying to accomplish in this bill is to find out if, in fact, the phosphorus is coming from wastewater treatment plants."

Newman's bill will be considered further when an overall environment bill is compiled. It is one of several the new Republican legislative majority is pushing this year to ease environmental regulations. Another would eliminate the Environmental Quality Board, which makes several decisions related to the environment.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce is behind the specific EQB proposal, but Republicans in general say state agencies such as the Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources over regulate Minnesotans.

"We feel that the PCA and the DNR are coming in heavy fisted sometimes without oversight, that's the problem with rulemaking," Rep. Matt Bliss, R-Pennington, said at a recent Bemidji legislative forum. "When a rule is imposed on the general public, we want to have oversight. Have the experts come in and testify and the stakeholders come to testify so we can see what the costs and benefits of a specific rule are."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.