Duluth News Tribune: Nolan hears about Iron Range infrastructure challenges
HIBBING — Iron Range officials expressed their concerns to U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan on Friday about the lack of federal funding for multi-million dollar projects to replace aging wastewater treatment facilities, as well as millions of dollars needed to update treatment facilities to meet changing discharge limits on mercury.
Nolan, DFL-Crosby, listened to the community leaders' comments for nearly two hours during a Hibbing forum on transportation and infrastructure. Nolan will attend a second forum on infrastructure and transportation with officials from the Duluth area at 11:30 a.m. today at Hermantown City Hall.
Nolan pointed out that infrastructure repairs needed in the United States are estimated at more than $3 trillion. President Donald Trump has said he wants to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure, said Nolan, who is a member of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Cities and townships in the Northland have been dealing with large costs in recent years associated with maintaining or replacing wastewater treatment plants. In addition, the plants now need to comply with stricter regulations on mercury discharge that were recommended by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Nashwauk, Keewatin and Lone Pine Township are in the process of collaborating on constructing a new treatment facility. If communities want their projects funded, they need to collaborate, Nashwauk Mayor Ben DeNucci said.
In Virginia, the city has raised its levy by nearly 30 percent in three years, mainly due to a $20 million project at its wastewater treatment plant that didn't receive state or federal funding, Mayor Larry Cuffe Jr. said. The project was on track, but with the new mercury standards, the treatment facility doesn't meet those standards and has received a five-year extension from the MPCA to comply, he said.
Hibbing Mayor Rick Cannata pointed out that city officials can ask only so much of taxpayers when it comes to paying for repair and replacement of aging infrastructure. Hibbing has 81 miles of a "crumbling sewer system," he said. The city spent $7 million on its wastewater treatment plant to meet the new mercury limit, but the city had to turn to its residents to fund it, he explained.
"We can only do so much. We have an older population up on the Range and the younger people are moving back, but we can only raise taxes so much every year and hit people with that," he said.
Wade Leonard, president of Rice Lake Construction Group in Deerwood, Minn., said many projects the company completes in smaller cities are "Band-Aids" because the communities can't afford to replace their sewer infrastructure. Leonard said the federal government needs to take "a little bit of ownership" for the problems. Decades ago, the federal government provided most of the funding for wastewater projects, he said — but now, most cities are left footing the bill for replacing that infrastructure and are unable to do so.
"A town of Deerwood that's 500 people, now it's all pushed back onto them and whatever was spent, they have to maintain. The same with Hibbing, the same with Virginia. But how can your water bill go from 12 or 15 dollars a month to a hundred? What's that going to do to people?" Leonard said.
The Central Iron Range Sanitary Sewer District completed, with financial help from the state, a new $28 million regional wastewater treatment facility in 2013 that is a collaboration between Chisholm, Buhl, Kinney and Great Scott Township, said Norm Miranda, executive director of the CIRSSD.
Now the CIRSSD is finishing a $5 million mercury project at the plant funded by the state, he said. He added that neither project received federal funding.
"It's an unfunded federal mandate," he said. "It's harming the small communities on the Iron Range. We're in the worst position to be able to pay for those projects without that type of assistance. ... I believe at this point, the state and our citizens have done enough and I think it's time for the federal government to pony up."
Babbitt's wastewater treatment plant is aging and nearing the end of its useful life. The city needs to find ways to either replace it or repair it so it meets new standards, but it comes down to funding, said Dave Sherman, a member of the Babbitt Public Utilities Commission.
"I'd say over half (of Babbitt's residents) are actually on fixed incomes. If you turn around and say, 'OK, we have to build a new plant and we've got to triple your wastewater fees,' I'm going to start buying shovels because there's going to be a lot of outhouses being built in backyards. People can't afford it," he said.