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Wastewater from at least one East Grand Forks business partly behind proposed utility rate hike

There are several reasons behind East Grand Forks' proposed increase to residents' utility bills. One of them is an unnamed East Grand Forks business or businesses that are discharging especially dirty water into the city's wastewater system, which became a bigger problem after the city began paying to send its sewage to Grand Forks for treatment.

East Grand Forks tower sign logo.jpg
A water tower in East Grand Forks, Minn. (Grand Forks Herald photo)

East Grand Forks city officials are considering a $9-per-month hike to residents’ utility bills, a move that would pay for ongoing maintenance and future large-scale replacements.

Part of that potential increase is $3 per month for maintenance of the city’s sewage system. City staff didn’t have a readily available breakdown, but that figure comes from a confluence of a few different forces: The city hasn’t raised those maintenance fees since October 2013, and city administrators feel now is the time to raise them to keep up with inflation; and some of the city’s sewer system leaks and takes on additional water during rains and floods, which means higher expenses.

But it’s also the result of particularly dirty -- “strong” in public works parlance -- discharges from at least one of two businesses in town, a problem that’s come to the fore after the city began pumping its wastewater to a treatment plant in Grand Forks in exchange for a fee that increases if the plant needs to use more or harsher chemicals to clean the water.

“Because we had a pond system before, none of these strengths mattered, they’d just settle out in the pond and they’d be gone,” Public Works Director Jason Stordahl told the Herald on Wednesday. “It’s a bigger concern now that we’re getting charged for the additional waste.”

One of the two businesses or both could be depositing particularly dirty water into the city system. East Grand Forks staff aren’t sure because both firms share a common sewer line that connects to the city’s broader wastewater system, and the nearest manhole cover through which city workers could test the water in that line is placed after the two business’ discharges are intermixed. The city aims to install a new manhole cover at a spot from which it could test the wastewater from one business, which could paint a clearer picture of each plant’s discharge.

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But city leaders’ plans also could extend beyond cutting a new hole in the road: Eastside administrators are taking an initial look at instituting industrial-grade sewer permits that would spell out how much a given company would pay for different strengths and amounts of wastewater discharge. Grand Forks has similar agreements in place with large-scale businesses, such as Red River Biorefinery .

And if East Grand Forks staff can prove that one of those two businesses has been outputting waste that exceeds what’s outlined in its existing permit, the city could push the business to pretreat its waste before pumping it into the public system. If that happens, it could ultimately render part of that $3 increase moot because the business -- or businesses -- would be toning down the sewage, so to speak, before it becomes the city’s responsibility.

City staff members, however, have been cagey when asked which two businesses they’re talking about. Stordahl said it was “some of the potato warehouses” but declined to go into further detail than that beyond indicating that neither business is Black Gold Farms, which owns a warehouse off Gateway Drive. City Administrator David Murphy said it wasn’t American Crystal Sugar, either.

“I hate to name somebody and have it in the paper and then it’s not them,” Stordahl said. “We can’t single out who they are.”

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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