Thursday, October 23, 2014
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Court says state officials violated Clean Water Act
The Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled the state violated the Clean Water Act when it gave two central Minnesota towns permission to build a wastewater treatment plant on a polluted river. The decision could have consequences for many growing Minnesota cities considering upgrading their treatment plants. That's because more half of the state's waterways drain into the Mississippi River. Lake Pepin, a widening in the river in south eastern Minnesota, is considered extremely polluted by state environmental officials.

Collegeville, Minn. — The Minnesota Court of Appeals says the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency should not have given the go ahead for a new waste water treatment plant in the Wright County towns of Annandale and Maple Lake. Kris Sigford, with the St. Paul based Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, that opposed the treatment plant, says the plant would have discharged phosphorous into the already polluted Crow River.

"We're very pleased by the decision. We think the ruing is a big step forward in getting serious in cleaning up Minnesota's polluted lakes and rivers," Sigford says.

Since the Crow River drains into the Mississippi and eventually into Lake Pepin, Sigford says the treatment plant would contribute pollution downstream also. She says according to the federal Clean Water Act, before a wastewater plant can discharge into a polluted river or lake, the state needs to develop a clean-up plan. The MPCA is in the process of doing that for Lake Pepin, but no such plan has been developed for the Crow River. Sigford says this decision will force Minnesota and other states to seriously consider clean-up plans for dirty water ways.

"It does crank up the pressure by saying growth and development need to go forward hand and hand with clean water, or basically they can't go forward," Sigford says.

There has to be a solution for this. You simply cannot close the borders, tell people you cannot move in. That is not an option.
- Annandale Mayor Sam Harmoning

Some say the decision could stifle development in the state's growing communities. Kari Thurlow, an attorney representing the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, says the ruling is effectively a moratorium on growth.

"It doesn't bode well for our cities. Because if our cities are discharging to an impaired water, we can't get any permits for new or or expanded wastewater facilities until a TMDL (total maximum daily load) is in place," Thurlow says.

TMDL places a restriction on how much pollution a waterway can take. If the court of appeals decision stands, pollution limits would have to be in place before a treatment plant could be built. It's a process that some say could take up to a decade in parts of Minnesota.

And while the decision has wide implications, officials in Annandale and Maple Lake say it squashes their hopes of building a wastewater treatment plant to make way for development anytime soon. Annandale Mayor Sam Harmoning says the latest court decision means her town of 3,000 won't be able to meet a growing demand for development.

"There has to be a solution for this. You simply cannot close the borders, tell people you cannot move in, you cannot have any more children, you cannot build anymore houses, that is not an option," Harmoning said.

One solution to the problem would be for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to develop clean-up plans for the state's lakes and rivers. But the MPCA says they don't have the resources to do that quickly.

Meanwhile the cities of Annandale, Maple Lake and the MPCA have 30 days to ask the state supreme court to look at the appeal court's decision. Harmoning says she's not sure what the cities will do at this point. An MPCA spokesman says they need to look at the ruling, before they decide their next step.

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