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House committee gets crash course on Bemidji water wells

FSA Minnesota Capitol 2019
Michael Brun / Forum News Service
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BEMIDJI -- Legislators from across Minnesota learned the magnitude of Bemidji's water infrastructure needs during an official visit Thursday.

A stop at City Hall was one of many for the Minnesota House Capital Investment Committee on its tour of the area to learn about projects before drafting next year's bonding bill at the state Legislature.

During a meeting with the City Council, committee members learned of a project proposal to clear Bemidji's water of perfluorocarbon chemicals.

Perfluorocarbons, or PFCs, were located in the city about four years ago near the Bemidji Regional Airport. In the same area is the city's water well operation, with five wells total. Because of the PFCs, which have been historically used in firefighting foams, the city has had to shut down three of its wells.

To treat those chemicals, City Manager Nate Mathews informed legislators about its proposed $16.3 million plant, which would be built near the airport. During the presentation, Mathews said the city is looking to split the cost, with the state and city each responsible for $8.18 million.

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House members present to hear the city's presentation included local legislators District 2A Rep. Matt Grossell, R-Clearbrook and District 5A Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji. District 3B Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, who chairs the committee, was also at City Hall.

"It's a serious matter that has to be addressed," Murphy said. "It spurred conversation and questions that we couldn't answer at this time, but we're going to proceed with the information we received tonight."

Initially, the city was exploring the idea of drilling a new well to replace the others. However, Barr Engineering of Minneapolis was unable to find a suitable location to construct the new well.

The lack of spots for a new well was what led to the decision of proposing a new treatment facility. Along with PFCs, City Engineer Craig Gray said Thursday the plant would also treat iron and manganese.

If funding was secured through a state bonding bill, the city would look to begin design work in 2020 with bidding to follow in 2021 and the project's completion in 2023. For its own share of the cost, Mathews said the city would look at a combination of utility rate changes and bonding of its own.

As part of the presentation, Mathews also noted how the city is unable to access funding from an $800 million settlement made between the state of Minnesota and the 3M company over the chemicals, because it's specific to the east metro area.

While in Bemidji, the committee also visited BSU for a tour of the A.C. Clark Library and to hear about a Minnesota Department of Transportation building project in Walker as well as two other Koochiching County projects. The committee also has a visit at Bemidji's Department of Natural Resources building scheduled for Friday.

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Related Topics: GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS
Matthew Liedke is a reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He is originally from International Falls and now resides in Bemidji. He's a 2009 graduate of Rainy River Community College and a 2012 graduate of Minnesota State University Moorhead. At the Pioneer, he covers government, politics, health and economic development. He can be reached at (218) 333-9791 or by email at mliedke@bemidjipioneer.com.
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