BEMIDJI -- The low hum of water treatment machines was briefly interrupted by the snip of scissors and a round of applause Friday.
The new Bemidji Water Treatment Plant, which has been in operation for several weeks, was officially dedicated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring a handful of city officials on May 21. City staff members were joined by elected representatives, past and present, to mark the first step in removing forever chemicals from Bemidji's water wells.
The new facility is located near the Bemidji Regional Airport, which is adjacent to a field where the city's water wells operate. Along with its aviation services, the airport has also been used as a training ground for local fire departments.
In the past, the departments used foams containing a chemical developed by the Minnesota-based company 3M. Those chemicals referred to as PFAs, are pervasive in the environment and don't break down over time.
To meet standards set by Minnesota health and environmental agencies related to PFAs, the city was tasked to find solutions. When the council found drilling a new well was not viable, it moved forward with the plan of a treatment plant.
The city approved the construction of the plant in summer 2020 and it was completed at a cost of $7.4 million. Since its completion, the plant has been tested three times and the water was found to have none of the compounds it is being treated for.
"It brings me tremendous satisfaction to guarantee the health and quality of our drinking water both now and into the future, especially as it relates to PFAs contaminants," Mayor Jorge Prince said Friday.
The construction of the facility was only one of two phases, though. The second phase will expand the facility to increase its capacity. The plant can now handle 1,500 gallons of water per minute. When the expansion is finished, the capacity will rise to 2,500 gallons of water per minute.
"This kind of project had past council members and current members work on this together and hand it off," City Manager Nate Mathews said. "We moved forward on this a little over a year ago, locking arms, knowing that we would have to figure this out."
To assist with the project, the city received $10.19 million from the state through a bonding bill passed by the Minnesota Legislature in fall 2020. Voting in favor of the bonding bill were three local legislators. District 2 and 5 Sens. Paul Utke, R-Park Rapids and Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, as well as former District 5A Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, all voted for the bonding legislation.
Another funding stream is from litigation the city launched against 3M. In fall 2020, the city took legal action with 3M and in March, an agreement was reached.
Earlier this week, the council approved moving forward with the second phase on Monday, May 17 by hiring the firm Barr Engineering at a cost of $740,000. Barr Engineering will work with the city on designing the expansion and assist with other items up to the bidding date.
The design process is expected to take about a year, with project bidding anticipated in April 2022. Construction would then start in summer 2022 with completion in June or July 2023.