Minnesota Communities Oppose City's Planned Sewage Treatment Facility

Residents of nearby Lake St. Croix Beach and St. Mary's Point fear the project would cause more environmental problems than it solves. Among other concerns, they fear that Valley Creek -- a protected trout stream -- could be harmed and groundwater near drinking water wells could be contaminated.

By Mary Divine
Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

Afton, Minn., and its neighbors to the northeast are bumping heads over the city's plans for a $4 million sewage treatment facility. Afton says the community wastewater collection and treatment system planned just north of the city's Old Village area is designed to protect the St. Croix River during flooding, but residents of nearby Lake St. Croix Beach and St. Mary's Point fear the project would cause more environmental problems than it solves. Among other concerns, they fear that Valley Creek -- a protected trout stream -- could be harmed and groundwater near drinking water wells could be contaminated.

The facility would be built on 25 acres in Afton's northeast corner, where sewage from 30 businesses and 70 houses in the Old Village would be pumped. Lake St. Croix Beach and St. Mary's Point have asked the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the permitting agency for the large subsurface treatment system, to require Afton to conduct a detailed environmental review of the project. They also have asked for a contested case hearing on the project. The MPCA Citizens' Advisory Board will rule on their petitions June 23.

To support their claims, the cities hired an environmental engineering firm to review work of Afton's engineers. The hydrogeologist's report detailed many "significant environmental concerns with the proposed project," said Jim Unker, a Lake St. Croix Beach City Council member. Unker said he believes a detailed environmental review, called an environmental impact statement, would delay or stop the project. "It would prove our point that it doesn't belong there," he said. "A delay would at least give us time for a more reasoned, perhaps regional approach or give us time to explore alternatives."

The project would place "a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from wastewater disposal onto well owners" in Lake St. Croix Beach and St. Mary's Point, city attorney Kevin Sandstrom wrote in the petition for an EIS. "Wastewater from the Afton village was formerly disposed of in individual septic treatment systems located near where the wastewater was generated," he wrote. "The proposed system benefits the landowners in the Afton village by moving the wastewater away from their property. The negative environmental consequences are exclusively (and therefore disproportionately) borne by the people who drink from wells downgradient from the proposed drainfield."

Afton's Old Village is served by private septic systems, a setup that can cause problems when the St. Croix River floods. Because the city is bordered by the river on the east and steep bluffs on the west, it looked to large parcels of land to the north, City Administrator Ron Moorse said. The 25 acres the city bought for the project in 2013 offer excellent buffers and have the soil needed for the project. The property is mostly open space, dotted with trees, and has a small vacant house. Besides an environment assessment worksheet on the site, Afton conducted a hydrogeological analysis, which showed that the site was "very well suited" for a wastewater treatment system and that Valley Creek would not be affected, Moorse said.

The proposed sewer pipe would run 7 to 10 feet below Valley Creek and be installed by drilling horizontally; the creek bed will not be disturbed, Moorse said. The sewage would be pumped about a half-mile to the treatment site, where it would flow into settling tanks and a recirculating gravel filter before being discharged into the soil. Solids from the tanks would be trucked to the Metropolitan Council's Metropolitan Wastewater Treatment Facility in St. Paul as needed.

Discharge from the facility would flow to the northeast, away from Valley Creek, said Bill Priebe, metro region supervisor for municipal permitting for the MPCA. The system would exceed minimum state standards, Priebe said. Afton officials would be required to monitor the system and report to the MPCA each month. "I believe they are meeting all state requirements," Priebe said last week. "They've got a more stringent discharge proposed for this system than any other system like it in the state. I'm not seeing any reason, from my technical standpoint, to deny the project."

The MPCA received 52 public comments about the project as part of the environmental assessment worksheet process; most of the comments had to do with Valley Creek and concerns about public health and drinking water, Priebe said.

Lake St. Croix Beach resident Kricket Kohl is worried about the drinking water from her private, backyard well. Kohl, who uses a wheelchair and has peripheral neuropathy caused by Sjogren's Syndrome, an autoimmune disease, said testing for nitrate -- the only chemical parameter that would be measured in the wastewater treatment effluent -- is not enough. She is worried, too, about the presence of pesticides, paints, cleaners, and other household waste; petroleum products; and pharmaceuticals. "I have a shallow well. It's only 25 feet deep," she said. "They say they will be testing for nitrates, but there will be two marinas, a hotel, and I don't know how many restaurants using the system. How much other stuff is going in there?"

Kohl said she hopes the MPCA requires an EIS and forces Afton to consider alternative locations. "It doesn't need to be where they picked out," she said. "It won't benefit anybody who lives in this town."

Project funding would come from a $1.7 million MPCA grant and about $700,000 from the state Department of Natural Resources. The remaining $1.6 million would be assessed to about 100 homes and businesses in the Old Village.

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