A series of setbacks for the expansion of the wastewater treatment facility brought council and utilities commission members from Brainerd and Baxter together Wednesday night to determine where the cities go next.

Construction on the $35 million expansion of Brainerd's wastewater treatment facility, of which Baxter is paying a third of the cost, was scheduled to begin in the spring of 2007, with operation beginning in 2009. The permit application for the expanded facility was being considered by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency before a series of roadblocks.

First, the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, which in the past has taken legal action against the MPCA and several cities concerning wastewater facility expansion, issued comments questioning Brainerd's permit application. Then the MPCA determined Brainerd's facility contained elevated levels of the pollutant perfluorooctane sulfonate. At that point the MPCA delayed issuing Brainerd's permit.

At the request of Baxter Mayor Darrel Olson, council members, utility commission members and staffers met Wednesday at Northland Arboretum to discuss what should be done as far as current wastewater capacity in the event the permit is delayed, how interim planning will be paid and what should be done if legal action is taken against the MPCA and the city.

"I'm not normally a pessimist or a prophet of doom, but this issue is fairly urgent," Olson said. "We, meaning all of us, need to look at where we're going to end up in maybe 10 to 15 years. That's where the urgency is coming from on our part. We need to be planning together."

Ron Swenson, supervisor of the MPCA's municipal unit, said there were two tracks the city could pursue. If the MPCA sets limits on perfluorooctane sulfonate and the cities can meet the limit, they could start the public notice process again with the permit. If not, they could perform studies to prove the facility wouldn't degrade the Mississippi River system.

Either way, it will push the project back and there's always the possibility of a lawsuit, Swenson said.

"We realized that about 2010, things are going to start getting tight around here with the current rate of growth," he said. "There's a lot of legal challenges ahead. I think we may be in for a tussle and a fight."

In the interim, the MPCA and the city of Brainerd continue to test for perfluorooctane sulfonates in the wastewater system. Brainerd Public Utilities Superintendent Tom Phelps said it was also important for the city's to reduce organic loading at the treatment facility.

Olson said Baxter had three requests for the city of Brainerd: That the original long term contract be signed; that Brainerd increase Baxter's wastewater capacity if needed before the plant is expanded and Brainerd agree to hire legal counsel in the event of a lawsuit from the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

Brainerd didn't agree to any of Baxter's requests Wednesday. Phelps said he would prefer to wait until they know more about the permitting process before making decisions. He also said the cities should wait to here from city engineers on flow projections into the wastewater system.

The Baxter City Council also agreed to meet to discuss paying a third of a $2 million planning cost being proposed by Brainerd. Olson said that his city struggles with paying $750,000 now as a customer, not an owner, for a plant that won't be built for some time. Brainerd Public Utilities Commission Chairman Bill Wroolie countered that Baxter was not a customer but was paying for capacity in the plant.

Both cities agreed to continue weekly meetings on the wastewater treatment facility.

"We're in this thing together, let's work together on it," said Baxter City Council member Jim Klein. "Communication is very, very important. We have to take steps to improve that."

Added Brainerd Mayor James Wallin: "One thing both cities can agree on is the need to get together on issues and go over how they affect our communities. If we work together as one, it's a lot better than working separately."

MATT ERICKSON may be reached at matt.erickson@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5857.

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