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What's that darn smell? Perham working on eliminating wastewater stench

There's no argument as to whether or not the wastewater treatment plant is emitting an undesirable odor.

Just ask anyone who works or does business near Highway 10.

"I don't think it's affecting business, but you have complaints of the smell," said Brenda Nyberg, manager of Crossings Inn and Suites on Market Drive.

Most customers who stop into the Crossings are either in town for business or are passing through on their way to another destination. Because their stays aren't for purely leisurely reasons, Nyberg said the stench hasn't kept people away, but it hasn't exactly made people stay, either.

"The last question is about what the smell is," Nyberg said.

Crossings customers aren't alone. The staff at Perham Family Dentistry has opted out of summer outdoor lunches to avoid the wastewater smell.

At Marlo Motors, it's become a topic of conversation among customers and owner Paul Sonnenberg.

"No one is angry about it, but they comment about how bad it smells," he said.

It's the worst the plant has smelled since Sonnenberg moved his business and home to the County Road 78 location in 1995. Living next door has meant he hasn't been able to escape the smell, even after a long day at work.

"It's more of an annoyance in my home when I can't open the windows, depending on the breeze," he said.

City Manager Kelcey Klemm acknowledges that this year has been worse than the past. He credits three reasons for the hyped-up smell, including problems with the wastewater treatment plant's aeration system.

"The issue we've had this spring is that there's a strong odor coming from it," Klemm said. "The city is aware of it; we've had a lot of complaints."

The plant currently has two primary ponds, both of which have aeration systems that help with the break-down process. This season, one of the aeration systems experienced problems, which only added to the plant's odor.

Klemm said the area's cold spring weather didn't help the matter, either. According to Klemm, hot weather is good for the aeration process. While the temps are up now, that wasn't the case in the spring.

"Having a wet, cool spring didn't help us with trying to process that (wastewater)," he said. "Hot weather is good for the aeration process, the digestive process."

The third contributing factor is an increase of flow into the pond, which Klemm said has been at a high this season.

"We've had pretty high flows coming into the ponds this spring," he said.

All of those factors together have created the perfect smell storm for Perham visitors and residents. But Klemm said a pleasant odor could be on the horizon.

The city is planning a $4.8 million wastewater treatment plant expansion and rehabilitation project - one that could have permits in place by the end of the month.

Klemm said the city plans to go out for bids this summer and, if all goes according to plan, break ground on the project by the end of summer or early fall.

That still leaves the question of whether or not Perham will greet summer 2012 with wafts of wastewater.

"We're hoping to have the rehab part in place by next spring," he said.

The expansion would include a 20-acre holding pond.

Having another pond, when it's complete, could also help with problems related to increased flow - an issue that Klemm partially attributed to this year's stench. The added pond would provide additional storage in the winter and improve treatment time.

"It's a pretty substantial increase," Klemm said.

While the city is working on two of the three contributing factors to the wastewater treatment plant odor, there's no telling at this point if Mother Nature is going to come through next year with a warmer spring.