On Point for May 2018: Commissioner visits WWTFs, new permit for pond systems

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Shining a bright light on hidden infrastructure

MPCA commissioner visits WWTPs to highlight investment needs

MPCA Commissioner John Stine visits Moose Lake WWTP in 2018

To highlight the need for investing in wastewater infrastructure, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Commissioner John Linc Stine toured wastewater treatment plants across northern and north-central Minnesota in recent weeks.

“We’ve been doing visits like this for several years to put a spotlight on the real needs for investment in wastewater infrastructure across Minnesota,” says Stine. “My boss, Governor Dayton, has made long-term investment in rebuilding these facilities a high priority. He knows we can’t be committed to protecting clean water without also being committed to investing in the resources we need to protect it.”

Along with agency staff from municipal wastewater, water assessment and communications, Stine first visited treatment plants at Little Falls and Alexandria before viewing a drinking water treatment plant under construction in Morris.  A week later Stine toured the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD) and the improved wastewater ponds in Moose Lake.

The tours emphasize the challenges facing small- and medium-sized communities trying to manage the short- and long-term costs of wastewater treatment, according to Stine. He also said the trips lead to media attention about this important, but often underreported, topic.

At Little Falls, Stine toured the city’s aging WWTP along with the Little Falls Mayor Greg Zylka, City Administrator Jon Radermacher and representatives from the Minnesota Rural Water Association. Little Falls faces a projected $20 million wastewater treatment plant improvement to address age and condition, and also to meet a new phosphorous limit.

Later that day Stine and his colleagues visited officials and managers of the Alexandria Lakes Sewage Control District.  Alexandria has had long-term treatment challenges due, in part, to discharging into a shallow lake. 

The MPCA crew finished its tour in Morris at the central lime softening water treatment facility that’s nearly halfway complete.  The water treatment facility will help Morris lower its chloride discharges, and hopefully eliminate or dramatically reduce the needs of Morris residents to soften their water.

Several days later Stine and company headed north for Duluth to tour the WLSSD, a district created by the Minnesota Legislature in 1971. The unique facility serves 17 communities, including Duluth, and four large industrial customers. In addition to wastewater treatment, WLSSD continues to lead in finding more ways to extract value from the wastewater treatment process, producing combined heat and power as well as bio-gas to name a few.

Heading back south, Stine stopped in Moose Lake to tour a much smaller facility to see how it’s meeting limits designed to protect water resources (photo above). Moose Lake received state funding in the past few years to upgrade its system to meet phosphorus limits in its discharge permit.

Related media coverage:

Photos from the tours on Google photos:

Update on chloride limits: MPCA meeting with permit holders, starts outreach planning

Water softeners major source of chloride in wastewater

The MPCA continues to address chloride in wastewater through follow-up to a work group’s recommendations, meetings with permit holders, and planning an outreach program.

In order to protect its freshwater fish and other species from salty water, the MPCA is setting limits on chloride discharged from wastewater treatment facilities (WWTFs). However, reducing chloride in wastewater is difficult, both technically and economically, prompting the agency to convene a work group of community representatives to study this issue in 2016.

The work group met several times in 2016-17 to discuss how to address chloride in wastewater discharge permits. Pursuing a variance to allow time to identify ways to meet a chloride limit was one of the work group’s recommendations. MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine agreed with that recommendation and waived the variance fee to make this path more affordable to communities.

The MPCA is now meeting with municipal wastewater discharge permit holders with a reasonable potential to violate standards for chloride and other salty parameters. The reasonable potential is based on a statistical test to see if pollutants in wastewater are high enough to impact insects and fish. In other words, it’s a permit limit.

The MPCA first notifies communities of new chloride and salty parameter limits through a letter, and then meets with local representatives in person to discuss options for compliance. So far the agency has met with Altura, Avon, Lewiston, Madison, Morgan, Montgomery, Watertown and Wykoff. The problem is the same (chloride and other salty parameters), but the solution may be different. Some cities may first  need to work with industries to reduce chloride being discharged to the municipal WWTF. Others may work with customers to upgrade their water softeners. Some may be close to meeting the limit and others have much more chloride to remove.

But ultimately, the most economical solution continues to be preventing or reducing chloride in water in the first place. That may mean going to a centralized system that softens water before it goes to homes and businesses, or convincing customers to not soften their water at all. The MPCA has been working with the Minnesota Department of Health to address the feasibility of centralized softening and elimination of in-home softeners.

A centralized water softening treatment plant – and then removal of all softeners – would likely lead to chloride levels low enough to comply with permit limits, but this option is very expensive. Fine-tuning water softeners and investing in new flow-based softeners may allow a WWTF to ultimately comply with a chloride limit, but there are other factors to consider such as:

  • Institutional and industrial contributors
  • Current loading to the WWTP
  • Hardness of the water
  • Willingness of the community to make changes

The agency is also working with several partners, including those in the water softener business, to educate homeowners on how to reduce the salt they use in softeners. Heading up this effort is Brooke Asleson of the MPCA’s Resource Management and Assistance Division. Asleson led the Twin Cities Metro Area Chloride Management Plan. This plan led to many successful efforts to reduce the use of road salt, another source of chloride in lakes and streams. Part of the new outreach will include an exhibit at the Minnesota State Fair this year. Over the next several years the MPCA will be looking for opportunities to assist communities in need of reducing chloride from water softening units in homes and businesses.

Because of the many factors involved, the agency is meeting with communities to discuss options. The ultimate goal is compliance with the water quality standard to protect Minnesota’s fresh-water species from salty water. But the hard part is how to get there. Discussion topics include compliance schedules in permits and variances to the standard. For more information, contact your permit writer, or for variance information, contact Elise Doucette at 651-757-2316 or elise.doucette@state.mn.us 

MPCA issuing new general permit for stabilization pond WWTFs

Wastewater treatment ponds at Shafer, MN

The MPCA is reissuing a new general permit for Stabilization Pond Wastewater Treatment Facilities (WWTFs). Reissuance of the Stabilization Pond General Permit has been significantly delayed due to Minnesota’s adoption of the River Eutrophication Standards and initiating phosphorus effluent limit reviews on a watershed basis. Currently, a number of watershed and effluent limits reviews for pond WWTFs are complete, while some are still pending. 

The MPCA has developed a strategy to issue a new general permit with a different permit number and name: Wastewater Pond General Permit (MNG585000). This will allow the agency to issue a Notice of Coverage (NOC) under the new Wastewater Pond General Permit (MNG585000) to pond WWTFs with completed watershed and effluent limits reviews. Meanwhile, the remaining pond WWTFs will continue to be covered under the expired Stabilization Pond General Permit (MNG580000) until their watershed and effluent limits reviews are complete. Once all pond WWTFs are covered under the new general permit, the MPCA will terminate the expired Stabilization Pond General Permit (MNG580000).

Here’s what pond WWTFs need to know:

  • MPCA is issuing a new general pond permit – Wastewater Pond General Permit (MNG585000).
  • This new general permit will allow Notices of Coverage (NOC) to be issued to eligible pond WWTFs as their phosphorus watershed and effluent limit reviews are completed.
  • Pond WWTFs will remain covered under the expired Stabilization Pond General Permit (MNG580000) until the MPCA issues them a Notice of Coverage under the new Wastewater Pond General Permit (MNG585000). The MPCA will contact pond permittees about any new limits.
  • When issued a Notice of Coverage under the new pond general permit, your permit number will change from MNG580000 to MNG585000. For example, if your current general permit number is MNG580001 your new number will be MNG585001.
  • The EPA has completed its review of the new general pond permit and the MPCA is preparing the draft permit for pre-public notice review.
  • All pond WWTFs on the MPCA’s potential general permit coverage list will receive a letter in the near future detailing the process and next steps. The pre-public notice version of the new general pond permit will then be emailed to all pond permittees for review and comment.
  • Please keep an eye out for MPCA communications.
  • It is important that the agency has your correct contact information. If you think your email address or mailing address may be out of date, please send the facility name, permit number, and new contact information to: npdes.pca@state.mn.us.

If you have any questions about the permit, please email the MPCA at generalpondpermit.pca@state.mn.us.

MPCA withdraws wild rice rulemaking, awaits decision on legislative proposal

Wild rice

The MPCA has withdrawn its wild rice rule from the rulemaking process that it has been in for nearly a year.

Recent findings by an Administrative Law Judge and the ongoing expressions of concern from all sides led the agency to reevaluate its plans, according to MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine. The agency engaged Minnesota Native American tribes, elected officials, businesses and municipal wastewater systems that may be impacted by the rule, and also received thousands of comments from environmental advocacy groups, other stakeholders and the public. However, the MPCA concluded it was time to withdraw the proposed rule to allow for more work on the implementation process.

The agency is now waiting for Gov. Mark Dayton’s decision on whether to veto a last-minute legislative proposal. After he vetoed a bill that would have nullified state rules to protect wild rice, the Legislature passed a revised bill in the waning hours of the 2018 session.

Background and context

Wild rice is an important part of the ecosystem in many Minnesota lakes and streams. Wild rice has strong cultural significance and use to many Minnesotans, and is an important economic resource to those who harvest and market it.

In 1973, Minnesota adopted a sulfate standard to protect wild rice based on studies showing that wild rice was found primarily in low-sulfate waters. The MPCA and many other organizations and individuals have been working on revising and updating this standard for several years.

In 2011, the Minnesota Legislature directed the MPCA to conduct research on the effects of sulfate and other substances on the growth of wild rice. This research was intended to inform an evaluation of the existing wild rice sulfate standard.

After extensive research, data analysis and discussions, the MPCA proposed changes in the fall of 2017 to the water quality standard designed to protect wild rice from adverse impacts due to sulfate pollution. During the last year, the draft rule went through a public notice and comment period. The MPCA modified its proposal based on that public input before forwarding the updated draft Wild Rice rule to an Administrative Law Judge with the Minnesota Office of Administrative Hearings.

Collection systems: What to do when things go wrong and releases occur

Wastewater release sign

Things can go wrong and wastewater releases occur even for communities that only collect wastewater for treatment elsewhere. When discharging wastewater to a different entity for treatment, these communities are still responsible for releases from their collection systems when wet weather overwhelms their systems, equipment fails, or other problems occur. The MPCA is providing the following information to help you respond to an unauthorized release from a collection system. 

These actions include:

1) Notify the Minnesota Duty Officer immediately: 1-800-422-0789 (651-649-5451 in the metro area). 

2) Be sure to tell the Duty Officer that the event is a “wastewater” release. The word “wastewater” will make sure the right MPCA staff are assigned to help communities respond to the release.  

3) Collect the following information, calling the Duty Officer again as needed to provide supplemental information:

  • Location of the release
  • Time that the release began
  • If the release has ended
  • The point where the release entered a water body
  • Name of the water body
  • Amount of the release (approximate, in gallons)
  • Actions taken by staff to respond, recover, and mitigate the release
  • Cause of the release (weather event, equipment failure, etc.) 

4) Sample the release to determine the impact to waters of the state. A Release Sampling Form is available on the MPCA website: www.pca.state.mn.us/sites/default/files/wq-wwtp7-20a.doc. Work with your MPCA compliance and enforcement officer to collect the appropriate data and report it. 

5) Prevent releases by developing and implementing an asset management program and/or capital improvement plan that promotes routine collection system operation and maintenance activities. Additionally, the MPCA recommends that collection system owners develop a sanitary sewer overflow response plan to ensure staff are prepared for such an event and to minimize the impact to the public and the environment. For more information, visit these websites:  

Also, do not hesitate to call on MPCA staff for assistance: www.pca.state.mn.us/water/wastewater-compliance-and-enforcement-staff-contacts.

eDMR tip: Don’t trust the calculator completely, double-check data before submittal


As a reminder, permit holders are responsible for all data entered into Discharge Monitoring Reports (DMRs), even if using the calculator tool provided online. So ensure the data is accurate and manually change any data that is inaccurate prior to submittal.

If you have questions or need help, please contact your MPCA compliance and enforcement officer or visit the MPCA DMR webpage.

Clarissa receives grant for improvements to aging wastewater system

The Minnesota Public Facilities Authority (PFA) recently awarded a $600,000 grant to the city of Clarissa in Todd County for improvements to its wastewater collection system.

The funding from the PFA’s Water Infrastructure Fund will support a $2.6 million project to replace vitrified clay pipes and manholes. The federal Office of Rural Development is also supporting the project with a $1.67 million loan and a $324,000 grant.

“This funding will enable Clarissa to replace aging pipes and other wastewater infrastructure that is deteriorating,” said Shawntera Hardy, who chairs the PFA board and is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. “These improvements are a good investment that will benefit residents and local businesses.”

The PFA provides financing and technical assistance to help communities build and maintain infrastructure that protects public health and the environment and promotes economic growth. Since 1987, the PFA has financed $4.5 billion in public infrastructure projects in communities throughout Minnesota. Read more at the PFA website.

MPCA, MDH commissioners to EPA: Proposed rule on science ‘dangerous’

In a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on a proposed rule that would restrict science used to develop regulations that protect human and environmental health, MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine and Minnesota Dept. of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm wrote:

“The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) are deeply disappointed in, and troubled by, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed rule, 'Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,' published April 30, 2018, at 83 FR 18768, under Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OA-2018-0259. This proposed rule to ‘strengthen transparency’ does not provide transparency or clarity at all — rather, it causes confusion and mistrust, and it will threaten the lives of real people. EPA should withdraw this dangerous proposal.”

The EPA’s “Transparency of Science” proposal would extremely limit scientific study and exploration by blocking all scientific reports that are not fully “public information.” This would mean data tracked by agencies like MDH across the United States that looks at human health disease patterns, and in many cases uses blood and other health data to identify health patterns, would not be useable in making rules to protect environmental and human health from pollutants. The data is not fully public because it can include people’s personal data such as names and other identifying information. If such a rule had been in place during the 1970s, a link to the harmful effects of leaded gasoline on developing brains would not have been identified and regulated. 

The letter concludes with:

“The promulgation of this proposed rule would set a dangerous and potentially life-threatening precedent regarding the use of health-based data, modeling, and research in regulatory decision-making. As proposed, the rule is arbitrary, capricious, unethical, and intellectually dishonest. The EPA should immediately announce that it is withdrawing this proposal.”

Related media coverage:

Spotted in Rochester: The Clog advising people on what and what not to flush

TheClog at Rochester, MN, Arbor Day event 2018

The City of Rochester recently took a creative approach to educating citizens on what and what not to flush. Chelsea Wiegand, an environmental specialist with the city, dressed up as “The Clog” at the city’s Earth Fest and Arbor Day events. The costume is part of an educational toolkit developed by the MPCA and partners. Wiegand passed out Hershey chocolate kisses to students who could explain how to properly dispose of personal wipes. City staff estimate they talked with about 600 students at the Arbor Day event. They also passed out stickers advising people to flush only the 3 Ps: pee, poop and toilet paper.

Related resources:

New webpages for MPCA environmental review

Changes at industrial or municipal wastewater treatment facilities, or collection systems, that result in an increase of a certain size may require MPCA environmental review. Environmental review has two primary objectives:

  • To give the public access to decision makers, to help ensure public awareness and meaningful input into public and private decision making.
  • To inform the decision makers so they can write better permits and better protect the environment before the project is built.

The environmental review program recently revamped its webpages to make it easier for citizens and permit holders to find information. The redesigned website uses plain language and divides content based on user needs. Citizens can learn how to get involved while project proposers can find guidance for submitting projects. The webpages include a list of current projects under environmental review.

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