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No more wastewater smell? Perham's $2.4 M EDA grant to assist plant expansion

For residents and visitors to Perham, it's no secret that there's been a nasty smell coming from the wastewater ponds on the southeast side of town.

Finally, a solution: The $2.4 million grant awarded to Perham last week by the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration (EDA) will help the city pay for a planned expansion of its wastewater treatment plant and deal with the issue that's been lingering in the air for the past few months.

The city had approved the expansion plan this spring. The total cost of the project was $4.8 million, half of which will be covered by the EDA grant.

According to Perham EDA Director Chuck Johnson, there are two phases of the expansion project: First, old equipment - which is what is causing the unpleasant smell - will be replaced.

At 25 years old, "the existing system is very worn out," Johnson said. "It's very inefficient. The ponds aren't aerating like they're supposed to."

Second, the project will build a new 20-acre pond to the immediate west of the current five ponds. The five ponds comprise a total of 46.3 acres.

Construction of the new pond is scheduled to start in 2012.

The city is currently operating at 98 percent capacity of its ponds, Johnson said, and the new 20-acre pond gives the city room to grow.

The city has several methods available to empty the holding ponds of treated water. City Public Works Director Merle Meece can irrigate the surrounding fields with pond water using what are called central pivots, irrigation guns or a technique called rapid infiltration basin.

During the winter, though, when the ground is covered by snow, the surrounding fields can't be irrigated. So, the city needs to have enough of a holding capacity to get through the season until spring. Then, once the snow melts, it can start irrigating again.

"Especially during the winter, we have a capacity problem," Johnson said.

Before the city's current wastewater treatment system was installed more than 25 years ago, Perham actually ran out of capacity, Johnson said. As a result, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) put the city on quarantine, meaning that the city couldn't expand until the issue was addressed.

"I think that could have happened here," Johnson said, referring to the nearly-full capacity. "But they (the MPCA) were flexible, and they knew that we were working toward a solution."

Odor problem

The poorly functioning aeration equipment that causes the bad smell from the ponds would have been fixed sooner, Johnson said, except that the city wanted to wait to find out the result of the grant.

Any money the city would have spent on fixing the equipment before the grant was awarded would not have been paid back through grant funds.

"We've been holding off on the aeration equipment because money we would have spent falls out of the grant," Johnson said.

He said the decision to hold off on fixing the equipment was "fiscally prudent, olfactorily unprudent."

Now that the money has been awarded, the city is looking at ways to deal with the smell.

"We're still hoping we can do something by spring that stays within the grant but helps alleviate the odor," Johnson said.

Had the city not been awarded the grant, the project would still have continued as planned, Johnson said, although the tax rates for citizens would have increased more.

The remaining $2.4 million of the project cost not covered by the grant will be paid for with a loan through the Public Finance Authority (PFA).

Getting the grant

Johnson pointed to several key factors that were responsible for the city being awarded the grant.

One of the strongest, he said, was the city's strong record of, and future potential for, job creation.

During the grant application, Johnson called seven different companies in town - Barrel o' Fun, Tuffy's Pet Foods, Kenny's Candy, Industrial Finishing Services, the Perham Memorial Hospital, Swan Lease/Kit-Masters and Perham Egg, and asked how many jobs they expect to create in the next five years.

Altogether, the companies said that they expect to create 300 jobs.

"Perham's had a lot of job growth, and we expect it to continue," Johnson said.

So, although the press release announcing the awarding of the grant said that 300 jobs would be created "with this expansion," that's not entirely true. Rather, as Johnson said, "it sets the stage for those jobs to occur."

Second, key to the success of the grant application was demonstrating the regional and national impact that Perham companies have.

Johnson demonstrated this by pointing to the 21 different countries that Perham companies export to, including Canada, Japan, Ukraine, China, Turkey, Pakistan, Mexico, Israel, Thailand and more.

"That's a huge footprint," Johnson said. "That's the nugget right there. That's what got the project accepted."

Thanks to the grant, the project will now move forward as planned, and Perham residents can look forward to a day without a wastewater smell.