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CASS COUNTY BOARD: MPCA road penalty aired by board

LONGVILLE — Cass County Engineer David Enblom explained Tuesday night to the county board why the county drew a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency fine on a 2010 road project and how this has changed his 2011 road building procedure.

Commissioner Neal Gaalswyk, at the end of Enblom’s presentation, called for changes in MPCA procedures as well.

Enblom said the county and the County State Aid Highway 1 contractor, Tri-City Paving, split the $45,675 penalty MPCA levied. Initially, MPCA had wanted to fine the project about $170,000, he said.

The historic county procedure for road building has been to construct the road, using silt fence to prevent dirt from running off into areas containing water, Enblom explained. The last stage in a project is to re-plant grasses once a project is totally complete.

On the CSAH 1 project last year, work was done through frequent heavy rains. As a result, some of the dirt from the project ran into roadside ditches, causing dirty water in those ditches. This is the problem for which the county and Tri-City were fined.

Enblom said none of that ditch water was at risk for running into any swamps or rivers or lakes. The county did spend an additional $200,000 beyond the planned $80,000 for silt fence during the project, he added.

During the 2010 project, 17 inches of rain fell in the CSAH 1 area, Enblom said.

MPCA notifies MnDOT construction projects ahead of days it inspects state projects and discusses any problems on-site with MNDOT crews and their contractors, Enblom said. In contrast, all MPCA inspections on county projects are unannounced. MPCA inspectors are told not to discuss with county officials or their contractors any problems at the site, but rather to do all communicating by email only, he said.

In Cass’s case, Enblom said this email only communication meant the county tried to respond with remedial action. By the time this action could be taken, there was another rain and another email calling for different or new remedial action.

Finally, in January, MPCA allowed Enblom to meet with MPCA officials at their office to discuss the problems. Because he was able to show the county and its contractor had tried to solve the problems, the initial fine was reduced, he said.

MPCA admitted Cass was responsive to their emails, but maintained the county just didn’t do what their inspectors wanted. MPCA never did a good job of onsite explanation, Enblom contends, because of their email-only policy.

The issue was settled only within the last two weeks, he said.

This year, as the county continues work on CSAH 1, installing new culverts and widening shoulders, preliminary to installing a pavement overlay on another section of CSAH 1, Enblom said they are seeding grass on shoulders as they go. This should prevent any runoff from reaching roadside ditches, he believes.

“It seems to me like a scheme to extract money from counties,” Gaalswyk said after hearing the explanation, questioning how this was different from any farmer working a field adjacent to a roadside ditch.

Gaalswyk said he thinks counties should receive the same onsite communications that MPCA affords MNDOT.

“I think we’ve been robbed,” Gaalswyk said. “It seems its just fine to take money from counties, but not another state agency.” He called for the county to seek state legislation to ensure uniform treatment if MPCA does not voluntarily change its communications policy.

The board authorized Administrator Robert Yochum to write a letter to MPCA in behalf of the county calling for a uniform communications policy that would enable onsite discussions instead of only emails to counties.

 Enblom said the fine will become part of the county’s administrative costs for the 2010 CSAH 1 project and paid from state aid highway revenue.