Our wastewater treatment system is one of region’s great environmental success stories

Steam rises from the final settling tanks at the Metro Plant in St. Paul.
Photo by Jeff Syme
Steam rises from the final settling tanks at the Metro Plant in St. Paul.

Last summer, Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Halladay pitched a 1-0 gem against the Flordia Marlins, yielding no hits, runs, errors or walks over nine innings. It’s what baseball calls a “perfect game.”

Employees of the Metropolitan Council’s regional wastewater system recently completed a perfect game of their own — 56 months of perfect compliance with their federal and state environmental permits.

Every day, the system’s seven treatment plants process some 260 million gallons of wastewater from 105 communities in the metro area. It’s enough water to fill the Metrodome in less than two days.

2,000 compliance tests a month
There are plenty of chances to fall short of environmental standards, since the compliance process involves some 2,000 laboratory tests each month for multiple pollutants in water samples taken from across the system.

“In a typical year, we might get two or three exceedances to our permits,” says Bill Moore, general manager of the Council’s Environmental Services Division. “So we have been pretty lucky to go almost five years without an exceedance. Our longest previous streak was 18 months.”

The historic streak ended with a single exceedance of mercury at the Metro Plant in St. Paul, the largest of the system’s treatment facilities.

The six other plants still have streaks going. Indeed, the Hastings plant has a perfect compliance record for the last 20 years, and the St. Croix plant is not far behind at 19 years.

The wastewater treatment system is one of this region’s great environmental success stories. It was created by the Minnesota Legislature in 1969 in response to a serious environmental and public health crisis.

At the time, the municipal sewage treatment system operated jointly by Minneapolis and St. Paul was inadequate to meet their needs, much less those of developing suburbs in the region.

Newer suburbs that could not gain access were struggling to build waste treatment plants of their own. Inadequately treated waste was being dumped into the Mississippi River, Lake Minnetonka and other regional waterways.

And the region’s groundwater was being contaminated by failing backyard septic systems. In 1959, the state Health Department found that half of the private wells in 39 suburban communities were contaminated with septic waste.

10-year construction and consolidation program
The new regional system inherited 33 municipal treatment plants, only four of which were capable of providing adequate treatment. Within a decade, 21 of these plants were closed and four new plants were built. The remaining facilities have been continuously upgraded ever since.

In the mid-1980s, the system embarked on a 10-year, $322 million construction program to separate combined sanitary and storm sewers in Minneapolis, St. Paul and South St. Paul. This effort greatly reduced the overflow of untreated waste into the Mississippi River during major storms.

In the last five years, Moore says, the Twin Cities have had just two overflows totaling several hundred thousand gallons — and both were the result of sewer breaks in Minneapolis.

Research scientist Brad Gehring scrutinizes the incinerator complex.
Photo by Jeff Syme
Research scientist Brad Gehring scrutinizes the incinerator complex.

In contrast, cities such as Milwaukee, Chicago and Cleveland have had huge problems with overflows of untreated wastes into their waterways during storms. Between 1994 and mid-2011, Milwaukee released 24.2 billion gallons of untreated wastewater into local rivers and Lake Michigan, according to published reports.

“I think we are probably the No. 1 success story in the country for control of combined sewer overflows,” Moore says.

Several years ago, former Met Council member Russ Susag observed that the progress in improving the system has been nothing short of remarkable.

“In my lifetime, we have gone from discharging raw sewage into the Mississippi River to the magnificent treatment system we have today,” said Susag, who worked as an engineer for the system in its early years.

And the progress continues. In recent years, the system has:

• Completed the construction of three state-of-the-art incinerators that have reduced many air emissions at the Metro Plant by more than 90 percent.

• Implemented new treatment processes that have cut phosphorus discharges by two-thirds.

• Worked with metro area dental offices to prevent the disposal of mercury before it enters the wastewater system.

Meanwhile, Moore and his management team have worked diligently to streamline operations, make use of new technology and maintain rates below the national average for similar-size utilities. In the process, they have reduced the system’s payroll from about 1,100 in 1994 positions to 650 today.

Their efforts have provided an edge for the region as it competes with other metro areas for economic development and jobs.

The most recent comparative data shows that the Twin Cities has the fifth-lowest retail sewer rates among 22 metro areas.

The typical Twin Cities resident pays $186 a year for wastewater collection and treatment, compared with $221 for Kansas City, $278 for Cleveland, $335 for Seattle, $455 for Milwaukee and $475 for Detroit.

Moore doesn’t have similar comparative data for commercial and industrial customers, but he believes “our industrial rates would be pretty competitive.”

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 11/22/2011 - 10:11 am.

    It’s refreshing to read an article about a government job well done. Not that it’s a rare event, mind you.

  2. Submitted by Alicia DeMatteo on 11/22/2011 - 12:41 pm.

    I’d agree with comment #1 and add that this is a great example of how investing in public infrastructure has paid dividends into the future.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/22/2011 - 12:43 pm.

    Allow me to set things straight.

    This is a success story of the engineers that designed, installed and commissioned the system, not the Met Council.

  4. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 11/22/2011 - 12:51 pm.

    Thank you, Steve. I will keep a link to this story for times when I need to be cheered up about the condition of our world.

  5. Submitted by Steven Dornfeld on 11/22/2011 - 03:00 pm.

    In response to Mr. Swift, allow me to suggest that the success of the system is due in part to the Met Council. It proposed the creation of the system in 1969, two years after the Council’s creation. A number of local suburban officials — New Hope Mayor Milt Honsey stands out in my mind — strongly supported the idea. And suburban Republican legislators were instrumental in its passage. I had the privilege of covering the issue and was on the Senate floor went it passed.

  6. Submitted by Rick Ryan on 11/22/2011 - 03:22 pm.

    I would also call Mr. Swift’s and the author’s attention to the dedicated public servants who operate and maintain and repair the plants. The Machinists who maintain the plants not only repair, but improve the equipment saving the Met Council millions of dollars in replacement costs. Only through ongoing maintenance by skilled craftsmen and women do these plants continue to meet or exceed their operating guidelines. Metropolitan Council Environmental Services IS a success story, it is a success story because of the people who make it work.

  7. Submitted by David Greene on 11/22/2011 - 08:04 pm.

    It’s a good system but it has its downsides.

    When the Met Council expands the sewer network it encourages sprawl. This has become more and more of a problem as developers demand hook-ups to the regional sewer system in far-off, undeveloped places.

    The Met Council should be much more restrictive in where it builds new sewers. We have to get away from our current development patterns and start concentrating on infill development. It won’t be long before $6/gallon gas is the norm.

  8. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/23/2011 - 09:23 am.

    Actually Rick, if their controls system is up to snuff, it tells those skilled craftsmen which pumps need grease, and when bearings and valves need to be replaced, which devices need calibration, and how to calibrate them, and tells them when they’ve made a mistake.

    Most of the public employees I’ve worked with at municipal water and wastewater treatment plants are competent and thorough, which is to be expected from folks that are as well paid as they are.

  9. Submitted by Rick Ryan on 11/29/2011 - 01:31 pm.

    Actually Mr. Swift, we’re not talking about greasing a few bearings. We’re talking about fabricating parts for pumps and valves that are no longer manufactured. We’re talking about rebuilding incinerators that are only 6-8 years old. We’re talking about reworking equipment to make it work better. All for LESS pay than they would earn in the private sector.
    We’re talking about doing jobs internally for $50,000 that outside vendors have bid for 5 or 10 times as much with a 6 month lead time. You really don’t anything about how these plants operate or how they’re maintained. You just spout you government is bad talking points, it becomes tiresome.

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