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While criticizing city staff, Willmar councilman contradicted by previous meeting minutes

WILLMAR — Minutes of a previous Willmar City Council meeting apparently contradict council member Ron Christianson’s criticism of city staff for not telling the council about problems with a wastewater lift station.

During Tuesday night’s council meeting, Christianson asked why staff did not tell the council about approximately five sewage bypasses — untreated discharges into the environment — that have occurred at the Country Club Drive lift station during the past five years.

Christianson, a vocal critic of staff communication with council members on various topics, said he wanted to be informed and be made aware.

“I find it strange that I’m reading (about the bypasses) on the Finance Committee minutes and we haven’t been made aware of it. That was it,’’ he said.

However, the council was informed 2½ years ago by staff about bypass problems associated with the aging Country Club Drive lift station, as well as the Ortenblad area lift station.

According to council minutes, staff informed the Public Works/Safety Committee on May 24, 2011, about numerous bypasses at both lift stations.

The committee approved a staff recommendation to conduct a residential sump pump inspection program in 2011 and 2012 in an effort to avoid bypasses by reducing the amount of clear water entering and overwhelming the lift stations.

The committee’s minutes and recommendation were presented to the council on June 6, 2011, by Christianson, who was committee vice chairman at the time. He presented the minutes in the absence of then-chairman Doug Reese, who later resigned from the council.

The committee minutes state in part that the sump pump inspection program includes the Ortenblad and Country Club Drive areas.

“These two areas have had numerous bypasses in recent years, which may result in a moratorium on growth that serves a line or lift station,’’ according to the minutes.

The Tribune left voice messages Thursday at Christianson’s construction company, requesting he call to discuss the issue with the Tribune. But the calls were not returned.

Christianson’s criticism came during council discussion Tuesday night of a Finance Committee recommendation to reallocate funds to pay for designing and engineering a new Country Club Drive lift station.

Colleen Thompson, wastewater facility superintendent, told the Tribune the pump is 27 years old, still has its original pumps, and won’t be able to handle flows from a fully developed service area according to the 2006 Comprehensive Collection System Plan.

The council approved the Finance Committee recommendation to reallocate $60,000 from the Lakeland Drive project to design and engineer a new lift station. City staff requested the reallocation because the $30,000 adopted in the 2014 wastewater budget was inadequate to pay for the design and engineering work.

City Administrator Charlene Stevens told council members Tuesday night that she did not think that the bypass information had been brought to the council.

In an interview, Stevens said city staff must be empowered to make a decision about a bypass. Bypasses are reported to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Too many bypasses could result in a moratorium on growth in the lift station area.

According to MPCA, a bypass occurs when the wastewater system breaks down or is overwhelmed by clear water entering the system. As a result, untreated wastewater must be discharged into the environment or it will back up into people’s homes.

“That’s why when you continue to see that, you put it in the plan to correct the situation, which is to replace the lift station in this case. But if you continue to bypass, you do run the risk of some action from the MPCA,’’ she said.

Stevens, who joined the city in August 2011, said the project has been discussed since 2009.

“I would guess it was probably part of the planning for this project and why this project was put into the capital improvements plan. It’s been in the plan a couple of years,’’ she said.

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150