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A way forward on wells: City Council authorizes planning for a new water well, water treatment testing

BEMIDJI—The future of Bemidji's water wells was the focus of a work session for the City Council Monday.

Several years ago, chemicals called perfluorocarbons were discovered in two of the city's five wells that are operated near the Bemidji Regional Airport. Perfluorocarbons were often used in firefighting foams and used at airports.

While the chemical levels were found to be within the standards of the state agencies, the city opted to still shut down the two wells. The city is operating the three remaining wells, and using a treatment process called blending to ensure the water is safe.

However, in the past year, Minnesota agencies have decided to begin lowering its health-based advisory values related to the chemicals. As a result, the city began to research options moving forward on water, with assistance from Barr Engineering of Minneapolis.

On Monday, Brian LeMon, Barr vice president and senior civil engineer, gave a presentation to council members with data findings and plans the city should consider.

LeMon said using the three wells with the blending process is providing a supply of water to the city that meets current and proposed standards from the state. However, LeMon said there are risks that the city faces.

For example, LeMon said if chemicals start to appear in the three wells, the levels could rise over the standards. The same thing could happen if one of the wells fails because of a malfunction. Additionally, LeMon said the city doesn't have a backup system and has no treatment option to remove the chemicals.

LeMon said the city should begin work on both a short-term plan of roughly six months to ensure that the city can still supply water in case of an issue as well as a long-term strategy of 18 to 24 months to have long lasting water quality.

For the short term, he said the city should consider constructing a new well while also conducting tests to see which treatment option may be best to use moving forward.

"For the short term, the only thing I believe you can get up in time to be of use is the well. You can't make any decision on treatment until you have some of the tests done," LeMon said. "Part of the long-term solution could likely involve treatment."

For a new well, LeMon said the city could either have one near the airport or close to Bemidji High School. Of the two options, the research favored using a location near the airport, as it could use the city's existing treatment facility. Additionally, the well would be located north of where the current five wells are to avoid the chemicals. A well at the high school would need a new water main to connect for distribution and a new water treatment facility could be required.

A new well near the airport would have a cost estimate of $1.6 million, he said.

The council passed a motion authorizing the siting of the well, with contracting coming to $95,000 and engineering at $50,000. Additionally, the motion authorized testing the use of treatment options, which also comes to $50,000 for engineering. The testing would review two treatments, one called granular activated carbon and the other called single ion exchange. Testing for the first is $15,000 while the city can use a free pilot test for the second.

"There's a potential that if we drill another good well that doesn't have any contaminants in it and things stay the way they are at our other wells, that we can just use that new well and continue blending," City Engineer Craig Gray said. "My hope is with the new well, we may not need any treatment if things stay the way they are. But, if the chemicals did get worse, we would have those treatment options as well."

"You wouldn't want to be caught having to make the decision of needing treatment without the testing information," LeMon said. "At least now, you'll have knowledge."

As for the long-term planning, LeMon said the city should have an advisory committee meeting where Bemidji officials talk to state agencies and learn more about requirements. Additionally, the city can then review the results of the tests and identify gaps in data, such as the extent of the chemicals at the airport.

Before the presentation on future strategy, the council closed the work session to discuss legal matters related to the wells. Mayor Rita Albrecht and Ward 4 council member Richard Lehmann were absent from Monday's meeting.

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

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