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Commentary: MPCA goes wrong way on phosphorous

When a program is working well, there really is little reason to fix it. Wise people simply stand back and let the program concentrate on the need it was designed to address.

For years, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has tailored its phosphorous discharge standard to the needs of a water basin that receives a city's wastewater. The program has helped cities limit their spending, while protecting the environment.

If a city discharges treated sewage directly into a lake or reservoir, the discharge may not contain more than 1 milligram per liter of phosphorous. Scientists at the MPCA have found that the characteristics of lakes and reservoirs are fairly constant and that a 1 milligram per liter standard protects them from phosphorous-induced environmental degradation.

Discharge permits for rivers, however, have been handled on a case-by-case basis, because the ability of a river to safely accept a phosphorous discharge is influenced by a variety of factors: turbidity, water temperature, detention time, the tree canopy over the river, and the rate of water flow. A river with high turbidity, for example, really would not benefit from a 1 milligram per liter phosphorous standard.

Some cities have been required to meet the 1 milligram per liter standard for only part of the year. Others were allowed to exceed the standard after a scientific analysis determined that the river environment would not be harmed by the extra phosphorous discharge.

More importantly, the MPCA has had the flexibility to not only relax the standard for some of the river discharges but also to exceed it. The program was ideally tailored to not only meet the unique environmental needs of a stream or river but also to do so in a manner that does not squander local resources.

For some reason, the MPCA no longer likes the scientific suppleness of the program. Over the last two years, the agency has been intent on converting its discharge permits to require all cities to meet a 1 milligram per liter phosphorous discharge standard.

The agency's proposed rule change is arbitrary and ill-considered. Clearly, it is not based on good science.

According to the agency's recent report to the Legislature, 35 cities will spend $134 million over the next five years bringing their wastewater treatment plants into compliance with the proposed rule. The benefits of that proposed rule change, the agency admitted "will be largely intangible and the improvements in water quality are likely to go unnoticed by most Minnesotans."

If the rule is not overturned by the Legislature, St. Cloud, which for the most part holds its phosphorous discharges to .75 milligrams per liter, will be forced to spend about $3 million upgrading its sewage plant to address those infrequent, brief periods when its wastewater discharges contain 1.2 milligrams per liter of phosphorous.

It means the city of Moorhead will be forced to spend about $4 million on plant upgrades to ensure that its phosphorous discharge into the muddy Red River does not exceed the 1 milligram per liter phosphorous standard. In addition, Moorhead, St. Cloud and other cities will incur the cost of adding new chemicals to their wastewater to remove the phosphorous. For Moorhead, that cost will exceed $330,000 a year.

The state-imposed spending that Moorhead and other cities are facing tends to drive up local sewage rates. It diverts resources badly needed for other environmental projects to tasks that may well cause more environmental damage than repair.

If Moorhead is required to meet the 1 milligram phosphorous standard, Moorhead will be forced to spend $4 million on plant upgrades that will not improve the water quality of the Red River. The river water will continue to be as muddy colored as it is today.

The new chemicals applied to the wastewater will produce more phosphorous-laden sludge that will be spread on farm fields. Over time, that phosphorous will leach into nearby rivers and streams.

What the MPCA offers is not environmental protection; it is simply change for the sake of change. What the agency is proposing is an expensive, poorly conceived solution to a problem that does not exist.

Alexandria, Minn., Mayor H. Dan Ness is president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cites.