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Minnesota community mulls not putting untreated sewage into creek

READING -- The unincorporated community of Reading is working against a deadline, and while there's no penalty being charged now, there's no guarantee there won't be in the future.

READING - The unincorporated community of Reading is working against a deadline, and while there’s no penalty being charged now, there’s no guarantee there won’t be in the future.

That was the message given to more than 30 residents who gathered at the Reading Community Center Thursday night. Reading doesn’t have a centralized sewer system, and just one of 52 properties in town has a compliant septic system.

For years, the untreated sewage from town has flowed into a county tile, essentially polluting the Kanaranzi Creek and creating an imminent threat to public health. In 2012, Reading’s governing body, Summit Lake Township, was issued a notice of violation from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Allen Madison, who led Thursday night’s meeting, said the MPCA won’t fine the township for violations as long as the residents of Reading can show they are working to correct the problem.

“Our committee has started over three or four times; we went through a few MAP (Midwest Assistance Program) people,” Madison said. “I’m not for it or against it; I’m just trying to keep it moving. It’s our town, let’s get involved. It’s not going to go away. Let’s face it head on.”

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In the four years since the notice of violation was issued, a committee worked with Wenck Associates on a report outlining different types of systems, pros and cons of each and cost estimates. Consideration was given to cluster systems and even pumping the sewage to Wilmont.

“We’re looking for something that’s going to last the longest with the least expense,” Madison said, adding that the plan now is to use a recirculating gravel filter system with ultraviolet light to treat the sewage before being discharged into Nobles County Ditch 5 a mile south of Reading.

“It’s the lowest-cost system,” Madison said.

The cost of the system is one of the primary concerns among residents of Reading, who have been accustomed to not being billed for sewer discharge. Madison told them Thursday night, “That’s going to change. There’s very few communities you can live in and not pay a sewer bill.”

The goal of Thursday’s meeting was to seek community support to petition Nobles County to develop a subordinate sewer district for Reading. It’s the first step in a lengthy process toward a centralized sewer system, and is required if the people of Reading hope to get any state and federal grants or low-interest loans to finance the project.

Madison said the committee needs to gather signatures from 50 percent of the community’s property owners to proceed with the petition to Nobles County to develop and manage the system. He noted several times during the meeting that signing the petition does not mean residents are signing up to hook into the system. That process will be done later.

“One of the real things we need to do, in my opinion, is a median household income survey,” Madison said. The latest census data shows the median household income is $53,300 - a figure he believes is too high because it takes in all of Summit Lake Township, rather than just the residents of Reading.

Household median income is figured by taking the highest and the lowest income in the community and determining the midpoint. The lower the median income, the higher ranking Reading would get and, thus, the higher likelihood to access grants and low-interest loan programs. Madison said the survey would be completed by U.S.D.A. Rural Development, and financial information will not be shared. At least 90 percent of residents must respond to the survey to develop an accurate household median income.

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The Midwest Assistance Program, a nonprofit organization that provides guidance and direction to communities faced with developing a centralized sewer system, told Madison the most a community has ever received is 90 percent grant funding.

That’s substantial, considering the system Reading has identified will cost $2.9 million with 55 connections or $2.3 million with 31 connections. The number of connections is uncertain because those with a compliant septic system will not have to hook into the centralized system, and those who have enough land area to put in a mound system on their property can choose to take that route.

Only those who hook into the centralized system will need to help pay for it.

“There’s a lot of funding out there, I know, for projects like this,” Madison said. “Money is more readily available now than it has been in the past.”

Whatever isn’t covered by grants would be assessed to those hooked into the system, and included in a monthly billing to make it more affordable.

“You can’t kick it down the road forever,” Madison told attendees. “The state can make it very difficult. They can come in individually and fine each (non-compliant) house per month if they wanted to.

“We could maybe push it off for another five years; maybe 10 if we’re really ornery,” he added. “The longer we wait, the more it’s going to cost. Construction costs keep going up; who knows about grants - maybe the grant funds would be depleted.”

As the first two people went to the front of the room to sign the petition, several in the room began to clap. Within minutes, there was a line of people waiting to add their signature; and by the end of the evening, Madison had 24 of the 27 signatures needed to move forward with a request to Nobles County to develop a subordinate sewer district, with verbal commitments from some others.\

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“(We) should easily make it,” he added.

Matt Summers, of Wenck Associates, said the best-case scenario is that it will take a few years for a centralized sewer district to be completed - that’s if everything keeps moving forward.

“If everything went perfectly smooth you could be building something in a year,” Summers said. “There’s a lot of variables - participation , agreement. You want to move deliberately but carefully.”

Madison said the petition is now at Bud’s Bus Service in Reading, where it will remain for the next two weeks for residents to sign their name to at least move the discussion forward.

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