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City of Moorhead fighting plan to protect Lake Winnipeg

MOORHEAD, Minn. (AP) — The northern Minnesota city of Moorhead is fighting a new state policy that's intended to improve water quality across the border in Canada.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is seeking to cut phosphorus emissions from Moorhead's wastewater treatment plant and other facilities in Minnesota that discharge into the Red River. The waterway flows north across the Canadian border into Lake Winnipeg, the world's 10th largest freshwater lake.

Canadian scientists estimate the Red dumps more than 40,000 pounds of phosphorus into Lake Winnipeg each day, contributing to huge algae blooms and a growing dead zone in the lake. Most of that phosphorus comes from farm runoff, but some comes from Moorhead's treatment plant, which isn't designed to remove phosphorus.

Moorhead officials told Minnesota Public Radio for a story that aired Tuesday ( ) that the limits could cost the city $10 million without making a significant improvement downstream.

Just across the river, Fargo, N.D., has a much larger treatment plant, which releases about three times more phosphorus daily, but North Dakota has no plans for phosphorus limits.

On average Moorhead's plant emits 132 pounds of phosphorus each day, but that's less than half of one percent of the phosphorus flowing into Lake Winnipeg. Some of that phosphorous comes from chemicals and detergents, plant operator Andy Bradshaw said, but most comes from human waste.

The pollution control agency has asked the city to upgrade its plant to reduce phosphorus by about 100 pounds a day. The agency is also trying to reduce phosphorus from 13 other facilities in Minnesota, including three American Crystal Sugar factories. Altogether the 14 facilities put about 280 pounds of phosphorus into the Red each day.

Agency wastewater specialist Denise Oakes said the MPCA is taking a rule designed to govern discharges into state lakes, and applying it to Lake Winnipeg, to comply with the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909.

"Water flowing across the border shall not be polluted to the injury of health or property on the other side," the treaty says.

Oakes said the Canadians were improving their facilities that affect Lake Winnipeg, so the agency felt a need to do the same.

Moorhead city engineer Bob Zimmerman suggested the MPCA is afraid of being sued and pointed out that the MPCA didn't add the phosphorus limit until the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy objected during the plant's permit renewal process.

Mike Schmidt, water quality associate with the environmental group, said it's not a perfect solution, but it's a start.

"Even if we can't solve the problem just by imposing a limit on our side of the Red River basin, doesn't mean we should just ignore the problem entirely," he said.

But Zimmerman said Moorhead already struggles to compete against North Dakota for business and housing development, and it means residents and businesses will pay higher fees for wastewater treatment.

Moorhead plans to ask the MPCA for a large-scale multistate study to show where all phosphorus in the Red River comes from, including farm runoff. But that study would take years to complete. The agency wants the new limits in place later this year. The two sides plan to negotiate, and the center said it will be watching those negotiations closely.

Oakes said there's a good chance the dispute will end up in court.


Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News,

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

Denton (Denny) Newman Jr.
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