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Wastewater pond odor a source of MPCA complaints

The city of Perham is dumping more chemicals - and dollars - into the wastewater treatment ponds in an effort to quell the smell on the south side of town.

At a special meeting held last week, city councilors agreed to try everything possible to temporarily fix the odor problem until permanent upgrades are completed over the next two years.

City Manager Kelcey Klemm reported that the ponds have been a source of complaints filed with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and the city is now working closely with that organization to find a solution.

It's possible the city "could have bit the bullet" and started working sooner on the major upgrades that will permanently solve this problem, Klemm said, but it held off in hopes of being awarded a grant to help fund the costly project. 

In the end, the wait paid off financially - a grant is covering $2.4 million of the $4.8 million price tag. Klemm said this will save the average residential user about $4 a month, based on their water usage. This charge would have remained on the utility bill for a good 20 years or so.

But the people of Perham have paid a price in terms of air quality. Residents have to keep their windows shut all summer, and some businesses are purportedly getting regular complaints from customers.

"I think everyone's frustrated by it," said Klemm. "I know how awful it is over there. City staff are really frustrated, too. It seems like everything we've tried hasn't made any significant difference."

Smell from the ponds has been a problem for at least the last two years.

After phase one of the major improvement project to the treatment center is complete, which Klemm said should be before next spring, the odor problem will be a thing of the past. Phase two of the project, once finished, will ensure odor control well into the future by allowing for much higher load limits.

Temporary fixes tried thus far have been unsuccessful. Public works staff members have been consulting with outside experts and following recommendations of the MPCA, but they said the odor problem is "persistent."

Merle Meece, public works director, said the next step is to increase the amount of chemicals they've been adding to the ponds. Oxygenating chemicals, such as hydrogen peroxide, help aerate the ponds to counteract odors.

In a follow-up interview Tuesday, Klemm said the city had already given the ponds a big boost, or "shock treatment" of chemicals, since last week's city council meeting. Those were added to the ponds last Thursday, along with live bacteria. The "bio bugs," as city staffers called them, take longer to make a noticeable difference, but may help sustain odor control over a longer period of time.

Unfortunately, though, there are no guarantees that anything will work - and so far, even the heavier dosages applied last week don't seem to be doing much. Klemm said more tests will be taken out at the ponds this week, and the city will continue to explore all its options.

The main culprits behind the problem, according to Klemm, are an aging and inefficient treatment system, combined with load limits that exceed capacity - particularly industrial load limits. 

Daily industrial flow has risen in recent years, he said, and industries have exceeded their flow agreements for the last two years. The MPCA is recommending that the city start charging those industries surcharges.

"We're not pointing any fingers here," said Klemm. "Those industries have only done what we've wanted them to - they've grown, added production, and added jobs. The problem is we haven't expanded or grown at the same pace."

By the end of last week's meeting, council members were all in agreement with councilor James Johnson that "we need to give Merle (Meece) the resources to do whatever he thinks we need to do."

"We're really heading into tourism season now," added Mayor Tim Meehl. "And I don't think we need to be dealing with this. You guys do what you think has got to be done."

The additional chemical treatments are estimated to cost about $20,000; the city has already spent $30,000 on chemicals and repairs this year.

While the city remains hopeful that a solution will be found, and staff continues to cooperate with the MPCA, Klemm said it's possible Perham could be fined by the MPCA if the smell continues.