BEMIDJI -- It's a time of relief and action for the city of Bemidji, with funding secured from the state for a new water treatment facility, and litigation forming over the chemicals the plant will be clearing.
The plant, now under construction, is located near the Bemidji Regional Airport, as the city's water wells are close by. The council authorized constructing the new facility in response to new standards on perfluorocarbons, or PFCs, set by state agencies.
PFCs are chemicals that were previously used in firefighting foams, and were developed by the company 3M. The chemicals have been found in the area, as the airport has been the site of training exercises by local fire departments.
In June, the city awarded a bid of $6.06 million to Rice Lake Contracting to begin the first phase of the project. Additionally, $440,000 was approved to hire Barr Engineering for design and inspection work, bringing the total to $7.34 million. The next phase of the project will expand the facility, and increase the amount of water that can be treated at a time.
To help fund the project, last year the city began working to have dollars for the plant included in the state bonding bill. This week, during the fifth special session of 2020, both chambers of the Legislature passed the bonding bill. In the Senate, the bill passed 64-3, and in the House of Representatives, it was approved 100-34.
In the House, District 5A Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, voted in favor, while District 2A Rep. Matt Grossell was against. In the Senate, both District 5 Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, and District 2 Sen. Paul Utke, voted yes.
"Our reaction at City Hall and with the council is relief," Bemidji City Manager Nate Mathews said. "We really feel proud that the state stepped forward and helped us out. This is a significant investment in Bemidji we're building. Having $10.1 million to offset our second phase will mean water rate payers will be protected from heavy increases."
In speaking to the Pioneer, Mathews also thanked local legislators Persell and Eichorn, as well as others in St. Paul who assisted in getting it through.
"This is a huge decision," Mathews said. "We've been working on this for a couple years, and the bonding bill for about a year and a half. We're pleased."
While the Legislature was moving the $1.9 billion bonding package forward to Gov. Tim Walz's desk, the city was preparing legal action. After a closed session on Wednesday, the city entered into agreements with the law firm Saul, Ewing, Arnstein and Lehr, as well as the financial company Longford Capital Management to represent the city in a lawsuit against 3M.
"The council also approved the commencement of litigation upon the termination of our current tolling agreement," Mathews said. "We have a tolling agreement which is set to expire on Oct. 19. What a tolling agreement does is put a pause on a party's ability to sue for damages, and a pause on the statute of limitations for a period of time."