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Sanitary district cracks down on Duluth-area cities

Cities and towns within the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District must keep rainwater out of their sewer system or face fines and a ban on new sewer service.

Cities and towns within the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District must keep rainwater out of their sewer system or face fines and a ban on new sewer service.

The WLSSD citizens board unanimously approved a new ordinance today that adds regulation for Duluth, Scanlon, Carlton, Esko, Proctor and other cities and townships within the district's service area.

The ordinance sets limits on how much sewage-water mix each municipality can send downstream and calls for the WLSSD to deny sewage extensions for new development, as well as levy fines, if those levels are exceeded.

It's part of the ongoing effort to stop sewage overflows near Lake Superior caused when too much clean water flows into and overwhelms the region's sewage collection system during heavy rain or fast-melting snow.

Marianne Bohren, WLSSD executive director, said the ordinance simply "formalizes what most of our communities have been working toward over the past four years'' to reduce rainwater inflow and the overflows it causes.

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The WLSSD is under orders from the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Attorney's office to have a permanent system in place to monitor flow and take action when problems arise.

"We're trying to achieve a degree of certainty so that we see no new overflow (locations) and no reoccurrences of old ones,'' Bohren said, adding that it's not the district's goal to collect fines. "We'd rather have the communities put that money into the ground to fix the problem.''

The WLSSD knows how much sewage each municipality should be sending downstream based on the average flows during winter months when there's no rain and no melting snow.

For most communities, the WLSSD will set a maximum "level of service'' that includes a big cushion for heavy rain events but still less than the flow that might contribute to overflow problems downstream. Proctor, for example, usually sends about 300,000 gallons to the WLSSD each day. Under the ordinance, Proctor wouldn't be in violation until it sent more than 2.16 million gallons per day to the WLSSD treatment plant in Duluth.

If those municipalities violate that limit, they face an automatic ban on any new sewer extensions and could face fines of up to $500 for every day of non-compliance and another $1,000 if that extra water results in an overflow.

Officials from several communities -- including Cloquet, Twin Lakes and Hermantown -- expressed concern that the ordinance will require more effort from their already overstretched staff, especially for communities with no history of rainwater inflow troubles.

But WLSSD board member Al Katz on Monday praised agency staff for addressing concerns of various municipalities and drafting a workable ordinance.

If the ordinance had been in effect in 2007, no fines would have been leveled for overflows while five communities may have faced fines and restrictions for sending too much flow to the WLSSD.

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Most of the ordinance takes effect Jan. 1.

The city of Duluth and WLSSD have been in legal negotiations for more than five years with federal officials on exactly what steps must be taken locally to stop sewage overflows. The city and WLSSD have agreed to a plan to spend more than $100 million to upgrade sewage pipes and pump stations, build sewage overflow holding tanks and to help homeowners keep rainwater out of sewage lines.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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