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Two sewage spills in TH prompts MPCA enforcement action

The Two Harbors City Council is feeling the sting of a $19,000 spanking administered by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. In two separate incidences – one last August, the other in January—the city’s waste water system released untreated sewage into Skunk Creek which ultimately found its way to Lake Superior. The fine is a civil penalty for the spill.

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Last summer’s release, an estimated 35,000 gallons of sewage, flowed downstream to Burlington Bay, resulting in the issue of an advisory and the beach’s closure for several days. Samples taken from the bay at that time showed E.Coli levels at over 2400 colony forming units per 100 milliliters of water, over ten times the acceptable level. The actual amount of bacteria could not be accurately gauged because the test, according to Cynthia Hakala, Beach Program Coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Health, doesn’t register levels higher than 2400cfu/100ml.

“There was overflow from a pipe we didn’t even know about. There will be an investigation,” Two Harbors public utilities Gas, Water and Sewer Superintendent Scott Johnson told the News-Chronicle shortly after the August spill. According to city attorney Steve Overom, the City responded, in part, by installing a program designed to call a public utilities employee in the event of system failure. The City’s settlement with the MPCA over the mishap was about to be finalized in January when a second release of waste water occurred.

“There was a breaker…the supervisory panel had a breaker that had been installed about 35 years ago,” Overom said. Corrosion caused a short that interrupted the flow of electricity to a float valve resulting in a waste water backup at one of five lift stations. Ultimately the untreated sewage overflowed into a manhole and then poured into Skunk Creek.

“This is not an uncommon circumstance for you to have to deal with this 50 year old system,” Overom told the council. But the releases have resulted in enforcement action by the MPCA and the civil penalty –money that will come from the sewer fund according to city administrator, Lee Klein. Overom recommended that the council enter into a stipulation agreement with the MPCA. The agreement will delineate the City’s plan for assessing and remedying any systemic issues that may have contributed to past spills or could result in similar problems in the future. There is a three- month window for completing the terms of the agreement.

Overom said that two engineering firms have been contacted and asked to come up with proposals for the job. Engineer Mark Wallis of MSA Professional Services was at the council meeting and made his presentation to the council.

“The bottom line is that it is feasible to do the work the MPCA is requesting within the 90 day time frame,” Wallis said. The overall cost of MSA’s services will depend on the results of the assessment and whether City employees can do any required repairs. The second engineering firm was not present at the council meeting and had not presented its proposal. The council unanimously voted to approve a stipulation agreement between the City and the MPCA, but could not take action on a proposal until it received a response from the second engineering firm.

Mayor Randy Bolen said that conversations with Rep. Dave Dill and Sen. Tom Bakk in St. Paul were less productive than had been hoped. The City is looking for funding to pay for $5 million in planned improvements to its antiquated water treatment plant. Neither legislator was in support of bonding or an increase in the City’s sales task to help defray costs. With that door all but closed, Bolen said that other avenues would be explored.

“We need to look at all options and what’s available in our tool box,” he said.

In other council action:

• Councilor Cathy Erickson announced that Tee Line Management has withdrawn from consideration for the job of managing the club house at the municipal golf course. A resolution was passed to accept Tee Line’s withdrawal and pursue negotiations with another company that has expressed interest.

• Candidates for inclusion in a hiring pool for the Two Harbors Fire Department have been selected. The council will take action to approve the pool once the applicants’ background checks have been completed.

• City Hall will be outfitted with a new server and computers in the near future. The budget for updating equipment in the offices was $10k. The council approved the purchase of a server and seven work-station computers, plus associated labor costs in the amount of $9,696.

• Thirty-five applications have been received for the position of public works laborer. The council voted to hire a consultant to help with the review and selection process.

• The council passed a motion to reconvene and appoint councilor Robin Glaser, council president Jerry Norberg and Mayor Bolen to a liquor store advisory committee.