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Shetek sewer still stinks

Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe Denny Johnson points to where the above ground lift station sits in relation to his home on Valhalla Road, just west of Lake Shetek. Johnson said when the wind blows in the right direction, the smell of human waste comes right into his home.1 / 2
Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe An up-close view of the new trench now being dug near lift station No. 2 shows the pipe that will carry the sewer gas 850 feet north of the present site.2 / 2

SLAYTON -- Denny Johnson and his wife, Debbie, figure they had about half a dozen good years in their new home on Valhalla Road, just west of Lake Shetek, before the stench arrived.

On a good day they might dare to open the window and let in the cool breeze, but they have become wary of doing so. One never knows when the wind will change direction and their home will be filled with the smell of human waste.

The Johnsons' front door is within 110 feet of lift station No. 2 in the Shetek Area Water and Sewer (SAWS) District. Last week, Slayton contractor Brown Excavating began digging a trench and installing a 6-inch pipe that will carry odor from the lift station 850 feet to the north. At that distance, the pipe will extend about 20 feet in the air to vent out the gasses from the sewer system. The work is expected to be completed by the end of next week.

Ted Haugen, chairman of the SAWS Commission, said the same action was taken on lift stations No. 1 and No. 3 within the last month with some success.

"It seemed to work pretty well," Haugen said. "It's at least 95 percent better.

"We know it's not going to be 100 percent -- there isn't one system that doesn't smell," he added. "We do hope to get it down to a very minimum."

Haugen said the piping is a "relatively inexpensive cure" for the odor problems property owners in the SAWS district have had to contend with since the sewer system was completed in 2007. He said the district has gone through several trial-and-error methods in the last two years to correct odor problems emanating from the system.

"The SAWS board is trying everything we can to keep our members happy," Haugen said. "We realize we've got a problem and we're trying to correct it as best we can."

Haugen's response has been heard several times in the past, said the Johnsons -- not just from the SAWS Commission, but from Murray County staff and commissioners as well. The Johnsons just want the odors eliminated so they can enjoy a nice dinner on their patio or let the grandchildren play in the backyard.

"Their promises and their lies don't work -- we're fed up," said Denny.

Debbie said the odor issue began as soon as the sewer project was complete. At first, the Johnsons were told that as more properties were hooked into the line, the sewage would move faster and the odor would dispense. After a while, new excuses were made -- in the winter time there were more odors because fewer people were using the line, and in the summer, the odor was caused by chemicals in the water, she was told.

"It's one excuse after another," she said. "I'm tired of the lies."

The Johnsons spent $8,500 on an individual mound-type septic system when they built their home in 2001. At the time, they were told their residence was not within the boundaries of the SAWS District. That all changed in 2005, however, when they were told they would be required to hook into the system.

No one seems to know why the lift stations were located so close to residential homes. Haugen said the county does not have setback requirements for lift stations, and no one raised issue with the location of the sites during the planning of the 34-mile sewer system.

"I can't answer as to why the lift stations were put in so close to properties," Haugen said. "There are no easy places to go. Lake Shetek is surrounded by houses and people.

"If there was local input (early on), we could have found a better place," he added. "Now, there really is no other place to move them."

Haugen, who was a vocal opponent to the sewer system up until the project was approved, said now that it's in place, everything with the $15 million-plus system seems to be working well -- with the exception of the odor issue.

"There's days when we've got problems," Haugen admitted. "We need to do something, and we're trying our best."

Before this latest move to vent the odors farther away from properties, Haugen said carbon filters were tested at the lift stations and also chemicals. Both practices were unsuccessful in reducing the smell, he added.

The Johnsons said there have been times when the odors were so bad from the No. 2 lift station that they've called the sheriff's office.

"(Last Thanksgiving) it was so ungodly bad you couldn't stand it," said Denny. "We were having 60 to 80 people here for Thanksgiving dinner."

Denny said since his Thanksgiving dinner was ruined by the smell, he decided others could suffer, too. He called all of the county commissioners that day, as well as all of the members of the SAWS Commission.

Several of them have visited the site in the last couple of years, and Denny said, "I think they go home and laugh."

One such visit by a sheriff's deputy, however, ended with the officer becoming visibly nauseous because of the strong odor.

The Johnsons said their retirement home has become known as the "black hole" among the locals, and they often get sympathy from family and friends who say the property has no resale value.

A campground is located about 400 feet east of the lift station, and Denny said he's seen campers pack up and leave on days when the odor is really bad.

Denny fears the latest effort of the county to vent the sewer gas to the north isn't going to solve the problem.

"The only thing they're doing is putting a Band-aid on it because they won't fix the problem," he said.

The Johnsons believe the best fix would be to move the entire lift station a mile to the south of their property, in an area where there are no residential homes.

"All we want is a nice home," Denny said. "We've worked long and hard to have what we have and it's just ruined."

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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