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Marie Nitke, Forum News Service, Published June 12 2013

Treatment plant odor remains problem in Perham

PERHAM, Minn. – City leaders said this week that the smell from the wastewater treatment plant is here to stay for another summer, and they’re as unhappy about it as everyone else.

Due to “a perfect storm” of rapid industrial growth, an aging treatment facility and a behind-schedule construction project at the plant, it could be as late as October before the odor is gone, City Manager Kelcey Klemm said Monday at an informational session with the public.

And unfortunately, the odor will be worse this year than it has been in the past. Because of the ongoing construction project, there are temporarily fewer ponds available to hold the wastewater, which has continued to pour in at high rates – exceeding the plant’s capacity for three of the last five months.

The construction process has also included pumping 25 backloads worth of pungent sludge out from the bottom of the ponds, which is now piled on dykes, exposed, until it dries out and can be disposed of.

People at the meeting weren’t happy to hear the news, especially business owners, who said the strong smell is keeping customers at bay.

“Every one of us that are in business are losing our shirts because of this,” said Arnie Thompson, an active community member.

“What do we tell customers that tell me they’re going somewhere else to shop?” asked Bette Pitzel, owner of The Back Porch.

To that, Klemm said to put the blame on the city.

“It’s our fault, not business owners’,” he said. “Tell them we’re trying to get it fixed.”

City workers have been pumping chemicals and aeration into the ponds since learning that construction had fallen behind schedule. Unfortunately, the aeration hasn’t been enough, and chemicals take three to four weeks to make any noticeable difference. Thus their efforts have so far yielded little result.

The city has also been trying to keep pond levels lower through increased irrigation, but the ability to irrigate has been hindered by recent rains.

So, “until we get caught up, it’s hard to say” how long the odor will last, Klemm said.

It will be another four to six weeks before the aeration pond that’s currently sitting empty will be operational, he added. Once that gets up and running, it should help, and then when the new 20-acre holding pond (currently under construction) is operational in October, that should really put a lid on it.

Even that, however, may not get rid of all the odor, all the time. It will fix the plant’s capacity problems and eliminate “excessive odor,” Klemm said, but a little odor, especially during the spring melt, is “the nature of a pond system.”

Perham has already spent about $20,000 this spring on chemical treatments to the wastewater ponds, it was revealed Monday. That figure is likely to get much higher through the summer, as many more chemicals will be needed to continue to combat the problem. By the end of last year, about $160,000 was spent on chemical treatments, and the odor is worse this year.

Hydrogen peroxide is being added to the ponds to increase oxygen levels. Starting next week, calcium nitrate will be added at a heavier dosage. So-called “biobugs” are also being added; these live bacteria take longer to make a noticeable difference, but they’re known to keep odors down over a longer period of time.

The city is also renting a large portable blower for extra aeration in one of the ponds, and is trying to irrigate whenever possible, to draw the ponds down. In addition, lime has been added to the sludge piles, and city leaders have been meeting with local industry to improve pretreatment techniques.

Public Works Director Merle Meece said he’s been consulting with multiple chemists and other authorities to come up with this plan of attack. Very soon, he said, the city will test a new kind of biobug, which has the potential to be more effective than the others.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is also on top of the situation, monitoring the air and making sure the city is doing what it can to take care of the problem.

Meanwhile, the long-term solution – the $6 million major expansion project – is in process.

“I take offense to anyone who says we’re sitting back and doing nothing,” said Mayor Tim Meehl. “We don’t like this any more than anybody else. We’ve been working hard at this for the last two years. ... We’ve just outgrown our system.”

The city intends to bill this season’s chemical treatments and other unplanned charges back to the general contractor of the expansion project, Magney Construction, for its failure to meet a phase one deadline of March 31. City leaders believe the odor would not be an issue if that deadline had been met.

Also, it is unknown what the city may end up paying to the MPCA in fines. The odor from the wastewater facility has been a source of complaints to the agency.

Construction at the site will continue through the summer. Despite being behind schedule, the final project completion date of Oct. 1 is expected to be met.

Local industry leaders are also learning about what they can do to help prevent the problem in the future, and Klemm said some new practices could be in place as soon as next summer.