BEMIDJI -- Gov. Tim Walz walked through the new Bemidji water treatment plant Thursday, which has been taking shape over the last several months.
The structure is located near the Bemidji Regional Airport and once finished, will treat the city's nearby water wells. The plant will remove chemicals, known as perfluorocarbons, to meet standards set by state agencies.
The chemicals were previously used in firefighting foams and are in the vicinity of the wells because the airport has been used as a training area for local departments. After identifying the chemicals followed by years of planning, the city moved forward with the first phase of the project in June, awarding a $6.06 million bid to Rice Lake Contracting to construct the plant.
Additionally, $400,000 was approved to Barr Engineering for design and inspection work, making the total $7.34 million.
The next phase of the project will be an expansion of the facility and increase the amount of water that can be treated. To help fund the expansion, the city requested financial assistance from the state.
In mid-October, the Legislature passed a bonding bill in one of its special sessions with $10.1 million for the Bemidji project.
During his tour of the new plant, Walz called the legislation the "most robust bonding bill in the state's history."
"Capital investment projects are what make Minnesota the place to live, whether it's safe streets, safe drinking water or other opportunities in their communities," Walz said. "These are not wish lists, these are very important things, like you're seeing here, with clean drinking water for citizens."
During votes in the Minnesota House of Representatives, District 5A Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, voted in favor, while District 2A Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook, was against. In the other chamber, District 2 and 5 Sens. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids and Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, both voted yes.
"This bonding bill is a true example of when I talk about one Minnesota," Walz said. "We're in this together, tax payer dollars in St. Paul can help fund this here, tax dollars from Bemidji can help fund projects in Crookston or Mankato."
During Thursday's visit, Eichorn, Persell and Utke were present. Also at the visit was Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht and members of the City Council.
In her remarks Thursday, Albrecht explained the path for the plant, referencing the city's initial work in checking if it would be possible to drill new wells. Those tests showed negative results, though.
"So, we took action as soon as we figured that out, we had to move forward with this treatment plant and get the first phase done as we continue to ask for bonding money," Albrecht said. "The council is excited about this, we're proud of the work we've done to deliberate and figure out the best solution. This has really been a success story for our community."
As part of his comments Thursday, Walz also talked about how the PFAs issue isn't unique to Bemidji and will be something to monitor in the future.
"This is ongoing, and it's not easy," Walz said. "You find it, you notice it, it's an issue and you address it, and it is costly. It also gets a little bit tricky with Minnesota because of the relationship with 3M, but they've been a good corporate partner and they are trying to make some changes. There's more to be done."
In mid-October, the city of Bemidji took action to authorize litigation against 3M, which is the producer of PFAs.
Outside of the water treatment facility about a dozen vehicles gathered, decorated with Trump 2020 flags in protest of Gov. Walz. The occupants spent the entirety of the tour honking their horns, in addition to a few bellows of "rocks and cows" in reference to a speech Gov. Walz made in 2017, referencing rural Minnesota on a map of voters.
Earlier in the day, Gov. Walz spent time in Red Lake visiting with members of the Red Lake Tribal Council. According to a post on the Red Lake Tribal Council Facebook page, they discussed many topics surrounding education, racism, medical cannabis, COVID-19 in Beltrami County and the election. The council also took Walz on a tour of Oshkiimaajitahdah, the workforce development center in Redby, which is funded through state and federal programs.