MPCA SSTS Bulletin

Having trouble viewing this message? View it as a webpage.
SSTS Bulletin

July 2014

Random stop started Ron Swenson's 36-year career at MPCA


Ron Swenson knows his career with the MPCA will end July 8 because he planned it that way. The way it began 36 years ago was more serendipitous.

After graduating from Bemidji State University with the first Master’s degree in Environmental Studies awarded by that school, Ron sent resumes and application letters out to many organizations, including the MPCA, but ended up getting his first job in Iowa with an agency that merged into the Department of Natural Resources.

He had been there about a year when he and his wife came back to Minnesota to visit her family. The office for the MPCA at that time was nearby so Ron decided to stop in. He walked into the personnel office and had a chat with a woman who told him, "Your name sounds familiar." She started digging around on her desk and said, "We’ve been trying to reach you for the past year. We’d like to interview you. Would you like to do that right now?"  He said, "Sure."

A few weeks later he received a job offer. “One of those accidental events that redirect your entire life,” Ron says.

That was 1978. Ten years later he was named site assessment supervisor in the Superfund program where he served for several years during the program’s heyday. At one time the program had a budget of $1.1 million and a staff of 14.

Eventually the program moved from assessing and prioritizing sites to cleaning them up. Some of those sites remain in the news. Ron was involved in the signing of an historic three-way agreement involving the EPA, U.S. Department of Defense and MPCA that led to the investigation and cleanup of the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant (TCAAP) Superfund site in New Brighton. So what was the most interesting case during the Superfund days? “There were so many,” Ron says, “but for me, what was most interesting is when we got involved with the Lake Superior barrels.”

Gets ball rolling on Lake Superior barrels

When Ron started in Superfund, in his new office was a 5-foot high stack of files of potential Superfund sites. At the very bottom he found a file on a large number of barrels filled with munition wastes from TCAAP that a defense contractor had dumped into Lake Superior during the 1950s and 1960s. “It kind of blew me away. I had never heard of them before,” Ron said.

He took the file and met with his counterpart at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who was starting a new program called FUDS (Formerly Used Defense Sites) to identify and remediate sites with environmental issues. “That’s really how the whole Lake Superior barrels thing got started,” Ron says.

The Corps and MPCA conducted search and recovery efforts that spanned from 1989 to 1994. That work totaled about $425,000 and identified several dump sites and some 17 different compounds that were leaching from barrels into the lake. Eventually, both organizations concluded the presence of the barrels do not pose a threat to human health or the environment.

Most of Ron’s career with the MPCA has been in enforcement and compliance, and one of the things he is most proud of is the difference those efforts have made in the area of subsurface sewage treatment or SSTS.

Several years ago the state began requiring septic tank installers to pay a fee for each tank they install. Those fees pay for MPCA staff who make sure SSTS designers, installers and maintainers are adequately trained and perform their work according to established standards.

“The feedback I get from people in organizations like MOWA (the Minnesota Onsite Wastewater Association) is they appreciate our efforts. More people in the industry are cognizant of their professional responsibility to do things the right way,” Ron says. Of course, there are some who aren’t and that can lead to interesting stories.

“We received a complaint about a septic pumper, the guys with the trucks who come and pump out your septic tank,” Ron said. “According to the complaint, he pulled his truck up to a ravine and emptied septic waste into the ravine. We set up a meeting with him where he told us, ‘Oh no, that couldn’t have been me.’ Well, the person who signed the complaint was a pilot and he was flying over the site and took pictures with a digital camera and telephoto lens. You could clearly see the man standing by his truck next to the ravine. When we showed him the pictures, he basically took out his checkbook and said, ‘What do you want me to write this for?” It was a Perry Mason moment.

Not all of Ron’s stories are suitable for print. To hear those you should join him at his retirement gathering at the MPCA office in Brainerd July 8, 2 - 4 p.m. There will be a second gathering that day with hors d'oeuvres from 5 - 7 p.m. at Prairie Bay restaurant in Brainerd.

Compliance inpsection form now avaiable in Excel format


The compliance inspection form for existing subsurface sewage treatment systems is now available as an Excel spreadsheet. This version, as well as versions in Microsoft Word and PDF format, are available on the MPCA website. No changes were made to the text of the form. 



Local officials taking over flushing kids through (simulated) septic system


By Gretchen Sabel

The Pokegama Lake Association, based in Pine City, puts on a children’s water-environmental festival each May. 

Hundreds of 5th graders from schools in Mora, Hinckley and Pine City come and learn about watersheds, amphibians, and much more – including sewage. 

For the past three years, MPCA staff have attended this event and explained (graphically) what sewage is and why it needs to be treated to prevent harm to human health and the environment.

The highlight of this session is when the kids get “flushed” down a simulated toilet and then travel through a cardboard septic system model, becoming clean water by the time they get to the end of the drainfield.  

Harv Lindstrom (licensed SSTS designer/inspector and local building official) and Richard Drotning (building official for Pine City) assumed the reins and will be carrying this exhibit forward in future years. Thanks to Harv and Richard for their excellent community service!