WORTHINGTON — Nine years after the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued a notice of violation to Summit Lake Township for allowing untreated sewage from more than 50 households in Reading to discharge into an open stream, a feasible solution has yet to be found.
It isn’t, however, from a lack of trying.
During a Wednesday morning work session, Nobles County Environmental Services Manager Mark Koster and Wenck Associates Chief Strategy Officer Peter Miller spoke to Nobles County commissioners via Zoom about the ongoing obstacles to establish a centralized sewer district for the unincorporated community.
Wenck Associates began working with Nobles County and the MPCA shortly after the violation was issued. Two grant-funded community assessment reports were completed — the first in 2015, and a second in 2018.
During that time, Wenck evaluated several different options for the residents of Reading. While some of the residential lots have enough available land to construct their own mound system, those who don’t would have a higher cost burden to connect to a centralized system.
An alternate option involving a cluster system that would link multiple households together in a series of subsurface sewage treatment systems initially drew support from the MPCA. It was later given the axe when it said the plan couldn’t meet nitrogen limits of 10 milligrams per liter on every single system.
Over the years, there was also discussion of piping Reading’s sewage to Wilmont. That option would have cost several millions of dollars, but was recently ruled out when Wilmont officials said it didn’t have the capacity to handle the additional effluent.
Worthington Public Utilities was also asked about the potential to build a seven-mile pipeline to connect with Worthington, but Miller was told the city has enough pipe to maintain.
So, where does that leave the residents of Reading?
Miller said the latest recommended alternative offered by USDA Rural Development is to construct a pond system for the community. While this option was presented earlier in the process, it was ruled out because of the cost.
In 2019, the estimate for a pond system was $3.3 million, or $60,400 per connection. Today, that cost has risen to $5.5 to $6 million, or roughly $100,000 per connection.
“I haven’t heard of too many (systems) more expensive than that,” Miller said, pointing out that property owners would have to pay for maintenance and operations over and above the construction costs. An economic impact study has already shown the residents would have a difficult time just paying for operations and maintenance.
While the MPCA prefers regionalization of treatment ponds to minimize compliance points, it doesn’t appear, at this time, to be an option. That left Miller with a question for county commissioners on Wednesday morning — “Where to go from here?”
“No one wants to take the lead to tell us how we’re going to fund it,” Miller said. “In the preliminary engineering report, you look at what they can afford. The report said the residents are going to have a difficult time paying for just the operation and maintenance of this system. That’s why we essentially need a 100% grant to pay for the infrastructure.”
Miller said the MPCA needs to consider changing its rules about nitrogen levels or, at the very least, discuss offering a variance to allow the residents of Reading to establish multiple mound systems. Unless that happens, a treatment pond may be the only option remaining.
He encouraged commissioners to talk to their legislators about the issue.
“Before you tell Reading, ‘Hey, sorry, you’re on your own,’ that could be a prudent response,” Miller said.
Commissioner Donald Linssen said the project is “an immense amount of money for a very small number of properties,” and added that he has a difficult time supporting the use of tax dollars for its completion.
“Six million dollars for 50 properties is not money well spent,” Linssen said. “If I was a property owner, I would walk away from it before I would tie into (the pond option). If I was a property owner there, I’d really be stressed.”
Commissioner Justin Ahlers asked if Rescue America funds could help offset the cost of septic systems to individual homes, noting that water and wastewater infrastructure were specifically mentioned in the program.
Deputy County Administrator Bruce Heitkamp responded that the federal government hasn’t offered specific guidance yet for the funds. It was also noted that Nobles County has AgBMP loans available on a first-come, first-served basis to help property owners. The program offers loans at 3% interest over 10 years.
Commissioners suggested arranging a meeting with the property owners of Reading to present the options to them. Heitkamp said he would work on scheduling with Summit Lake Township.
The MPCA continues to forgo the issuance of fines to the township as long as the county is working toward a solution.