Weather Forecast


Wastewater ponds a persistent problem

Waiting for the smell from the wastewater treatment plant to go away?

Don’t hold your breath.

Well, actually, go ahead and hold it. You may need to.

In an informational session with the public on Monday night, city leaders said the smell is here to stay for another summer, and they’re as unhappy about it as everyone else.

Due to “a perfect storm” of rapid industrial growth, an aging treatment facility and a behind-schedule construction project at the plant, it could be as late as October before the odor is gone, according to City Manager Kelcey Klemm.

And unfortunately, the odor will be worse this year than it has been in the past. Because of the ongoing construction project, there are temporarily fewer ponds available to hold the wastewater, which has continued to pour in at high rates – exceeding the plant’s capacity for three of the last five months.

The construction process has also included pumping 25 backloads worth of pungent sludge out from the bottom of the ponds, which is now piled on dykes, exposed, until it dries out and can be disposed of.

People at the meeting weren’t happy to hear this news, especially business owners, who said the strong smell is keeping customers at bay.

“Every one of us that are in business, are losing our shirts because of this,” said Arnie Thompson, an active community member.

“What do we tell customers that tell me they’re going somewhere else to shop?” asked Bette Pitzel, owner of The Back Porch.

To that, Klemm said put the blame on the city.

“It’s our fault, not business owners’,” he said. “Tell them we’re trying to get it fixed.”

City workers have been pumping chemicals and aeration into the ponds since learning that construction had fallen behind schedule. Unfortunately, the aeration hasn’t been enough, and chemicals take three to four weeks to make any noticeable difference. Thus their efforts have so far yielded little result.

The city has also been trying to keep pond levels lower through increased irrigation, but the ability to irrigate has been hindered by recent rains.

So, “until we get caught up, it’s hard to say” how long the odor will last, said Klemm.

It’ll be another four to six weeks before the aeration pond that’s currently sitting empty will be operational, he added. Once that gets up and running, it should help, and then when the new 20-acre holding pond (currently under construction) is operational in October, that should really put a lid on it.

Even that, however, may not get rid of all the odor, all the time. It will fix the plant’s capacity problems and eliminate “excessive odor,” Klemm said, but a little odor, especially during the spring melt, is “the nature of a pond system.”

How did it get so bad?

“One of the questions I often get is, ‘Why didn’t you start this five years ago?’” said Klemm of the wastewater treatment facility expansion project. “Well, we did start looking at this that long ago.”

The city hired a firm back in 2009 to start looking into a major expansion at the plant, which was originally constructed in 1984 and was starting to reach its limits.

The following year, Perham applied for funding for the project through the Minnesota Economic Development Authority (EDA), but was denied. The application was resubmitted and accepted in 2011, and the grant funds were awarded six months later.

The city would have liked to get started on construction right away after that, Klemm said, but had to wait until 2012 to get EDA approval to advertise for bids for the project.

Simply put, the permitting and approval process took longer than expected.

“Funding issues” are the main reason it’s taken so long to deal with the problem, said Klemm.

And the problem ultimately stems from rapid growth of industry, which has brought high industrial loads.

“For the last three years, we’ve been exceeding what our permit levels or design capacity is. Point being, we just have a lot of waste levels we’re dealing with,” Klemm said. “In Perham, for better or for worse, we have a lot of growth, we have a lot of industry – and that’s a good thing – and we have some challenges that come with that.”

What is being done about it?

Perham has already spent about $20,000 this spring on chemical treatments to the wastewater ponds, it was revealed Monday. That figure is likely to get much higher through the summer, as many more chemicals will be needed to continue to combat the problem. (By the end of last year, about $160,000 was spent on chemical treatments, and the odor is worse this year.)

Hydrogen peroxide is being added to the ponds, to increase oxygen levels. Starting next week, calcium nitrate will be added at a heavier dosage. So-called “biobugs” are also being added; these live bacteria take longer to make a noticeable difference, but they’re known to keep odors down over a longer period of time.

The city is also renting a large portable blower for extra aeration in one of the ponds, and is trying to irrigate whenever possible, to draw the ponds down. In addition, lime has been added to the sludge piles, and city leaders have been meeting with local industry to improve pretreatment techniques.

Public Works Director Merle Meece said he’s been consulting with multiple chemists and other authorities to come up with this plan of attack. Very soon, he said, the city will be testing out a new kind of “biobug,” which has the potential to be more effective than the others.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is also on top of the situation, monitoring the air and making sure the city is doing what it can to take care of the problem.

Meanwhile, the long-term solution – the $6 million major expansion project at the facility – is in-process.

“I take offense to anyone who says we’re sitting back and doing nothing,” said Mayor Tim Meehl. “We don’t like this any more than anybody else. We’ve been working hard at this for the last two years... We’ve just outgrown our system.”

Apologizing to the local business owners and residents for the situation, he added: “We’ve tried everything we can. It’s no fun for us, either, seeing people getting out of their cars and holding their noses.”

What happens next?

The people of Perham will have to wait it out for another summer. With any luck, the chemical treatments and extra aeration will kick in soon and put a cap on excessive odor, but no one can say for sure exactly if or when that may happen.

The city intends to bill this season’s chemical treatments and other unplanned charges back to the general contractor of the expansion project, Magney Construction, for its failure to meet a phase one deadline of March 31. City leaders believe the odor would not be an issue if that deadline had been met. Whether the contractor will comply remains to be seen.

Also unknown at this time is what the city may ultimately end up paying to the MPCA in fines. The odor from the wastewater facility has been a source of complaints to the agency.

Construction out at the site will continue through the summer. Despite being behind schedule now, the final project completion date of Oct. 1 is still expected to be met.

Local industry leaders are also learning about what they can do on their end to help prevent the problem in the future, and Klemm said some new practices could be in place as soon as next summer.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Perham Focus more than five years ago, and has since worn many hats as writer, editor and page designer. She lives in rural Frazee with her husband, Dan, their one-year-old son, Simon, and their yellow lab, Louisa. 

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