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City Council joins legal challenge against MCPA, EPA

The Austin City Council will likely join two legal actions to address the way wastewater treatment standards are enforced on the city.

The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities (CGMC) is leading the legal challenges because it claims the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) wants specific results, but won’t tell cities how much it’s going to cost or where the money will come from to fund the upgrades.

City officials have long discussed upcoming concerns the city is facing, chiefly a potential for $20 million in upgrades to its wastewater treatment facility.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency enacted stricter water standards a few years ago, which would hold cities responsible for managing their phosphate levels, among other things. Yet several cities and the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities are pushing back against the new MPCA rules and asked legislators to revoke the standards as lawmakers hadn’t approved the changes.

Mayor Tom Stiehm said instead of planning the new rules out, the MPCA simply dropped it in their laps.

“Our five year plan, capital improvement plan, we plan things and we know what it’s going to cost to put roads in, we know what it’s going to cost to do an upgrade on a building,” Stiehm said. “We try to have as few surprises as possible. And this gets dropped in your lap, possible $10 million bill. It’s not the way we do things. It’s poor planning and it forces poor management on us.”

City Administrator Craig Clark said Austin will be one of the first communities to get squared against the new rules, so if they aren’t deemed successful, the city will have spent unnecessary money.

Stiehm agreed.

“The sewage treatment plant is the biggest investment in the city, so we don’t want people messing with it,” Stiehm said. “Anytime we do any project [at the wastewater treatment plant] it’s multiple millions of dollars and some of that is just small baby steps, but it comes with a big price tag.”

Earlier this month, Public Works Director Steve Lang presented increased sewer rate fees for users to pay for the new projects.

Clark said Austin is particularly interested in the new rules because its permit for the wastewater treatment plant is expiring. The city has not received the permit back yet and leaders are apprehensive about what the price tag will be.

“These get paid for by our rate payers and a significant increase to our rate payers is not something we would really like to see,” Clark said.

Stiehm said the MPCA needs to let cities know ahead of upgrades so they can try to get funding. The MPCA is not a legislative group, but a private group. Clark said the coalition asked for the rules to be adopted democratically through elected officials rather than regulations by the MPCA so they have a better idea of what the costs will be.

“We just want a straight forward process on this and that’s all we’re asking for,” Stiehm said.

The Coalition also believes the MPCA’s scientific method is not reliable. They filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asking them to review and approve or disprove the MPCA’s riverine standards.

The EPA said it did “not have any documents responsive to the request.” The lawsuits would be based on the fact that the EPA said it does not use that methodology nor does it recognize the basis MPCA used as scientific evidence to use for wastewater treatment plants.

“We don’t know if we enact these wastewater discharge standards, what is it going to impact to the Cedar River? Is it really going to improve the environment? We don’t feel the science is there to demonstrate that,” Clark said.

Clark said the commissioner did come to Austin and reached out to the city to talk about it, but they still aren’t sure where the rules are going.

Stiehm said it’s going to be a quick-fix on something and they would possibly have to redo the upgrades after a number of years.

“We need a long-term fix and I think we’re being offered a short-term fix,” Stiehm said. “That’s the problem. We want something that’s going to be long, sustainable, affordable, reasonable and something that doesn’t break the bank.”

It will cost $9,057 to join in the legal challenges, which the city will officially decide at their next council meeting on Feb. 16.