MPCA rules could mean $20M upgrade

Published 9:54 am Friday, June 26, 2015

Though the legislative session is over, Albert Lea leaders have continued concerns about upcoming improvements to the city’s wastewater treatment plant required by stricter guidelines set by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

MPCA officials enacted stricter phosphorus standards among other policies last year as it looked at why there are high levels of phosphorous in the state’s lakes and waterways. Yet several cities and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities pushed back against the new MPCA rules and asked legislators to revoke the standards as lawmakers hadn’t approved the changes.

Lawmakers initially seemed willing to address the new standards, but only the Iron Range received a policy exemption. Though the guidelines approved last year were not changed in this session, legislators approved that in the future, the MPCA must get a cost-impact analysis before it changes additional regulations, as well as an independent peer review, said Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams.

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Adams said the changes will mean $20 million in upgrades to the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

He said though city officials support good water quality, they are concerned about how the upgrades will be paid for. The upgrades would include a new facility for phosphorous removal.

It could potentially mean doubling — if not tripling — city sewer rates in the next five years, he said.

“We’re going to need some funding for these improvements,” Adams said. “Not just Albert Lea, but everyone throughout the state.”

This could come in the form of low-interest or forgivable  loans, grants or other means.

He said the cost to make the upgrades will affect not only residents in Albert Lea but economic development as well. Tripled sewer rates could have a major impact on higher sewer industries.

Albert Lea and Austin would be particularly affected because of its location.

in Austin, a similar $20 million cost would be absorbed by Hormel, but residents would also likely have to pay larger sewer bills to cover the remaining $10 million.

“They didn’t have any sort of peer review to enact those standards,” said Austin City Administrator Craig Clark. “It’s incredibly frustrating.”

Former state rep. Marty Seifert, another lobbyist with the CGMC, said the coalition plans to gather cost analysis data from cities this year and push for legislators to re-examine the rules next year.

“There’s no doubt this is going to have a very negative impact on rural people, particularly,” Seifert said.

Rep. Jeanne Poppe, DFL-Austin, said the Legislature appeared willing to examine the new MPCA rules but the issue devolved into a tricky argument between environmentalists and a so-called anti-environment movement. Yet Poppe believes the issue should be discussed again if the costs to improve wastewater treatment plants become too great for individual cities to bear.

“There does have to be a reality check on what does that mean and how do we pay for everything we want,” she said.