Fix household water leaks and save an average of 10,000 gallons a year

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is challenging residents to check for water leaks in their homes during national Fix-a-Leak Week, March 20-26. The average U.S. household wastes more than 10,000 gallons of water a year through leaks.

In general, water is being drawn out of Minnesota’s aquifers faster than it is being replenished. Groundwater is the primary source of clean water to the Twin Cities metro area and other places around the state. Nationally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that household leaks waste 1 trillion gallons of water each year — enough to supply the needs of Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles combined. Limiting water waste will be one key to ensuring we have adequate water in the future.

Common types of household leaks include worn toilet flappers, dripping faucets, and other leaking valves. All are easily correctable. One way to check for leaks: Examine your winter water usage. It’s likely that a family of four has a serious leak problem if its winter water use exceeds 12,000 gallons per month.

“It’s easy to overlook a toilet leak or tune out a faucet drip. Fix-a-Leak Week is just a good reminder to check for water waste, and make the necessary fixes,“ says MPCA spokesperson Erin Barnes-Driscoll. “There are tons of how-to videos online that can show you how to do the work. No need to call a plumber!”

Toilets are especially leak-prone: the EPA estimates that 20 percent of all toilets leak. But because leaking toilets are often silent, the problem can go unnoticed while your home is “robbed” of up to 300 gallons or more of water a day. Put a few drops of food coloring in your toilet tank. Wait 15-20 minutes and see if color appears in the bowl. If so, you have a leak.

Learn more about finding and fixing leaks and conserving water on the MPCA web site and the EPA web site. If you live in Minnesota, you can also order a free packet of leak detection tablets from the MPCA while supplies last; click to order online, call 651-757-2999, or email

Broadcast version

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is challenging residents to check for water leaks in their homes during national Fix-a-Leak Week, March 20-26. Minnesota is drawing water from its groundwater sources faster than it’s being replenished. Limiting water waste will be one key to ensuring we have adequate clean water in the future.

Common types of household leaks include worn toilet flappers, dripping faucets, and other leaking valves. All are easily correctable. Toilets are especially leak-prone: the EPA estimates that 20 percent of all toilets leak.

Learn more about finding and fixing leaks and conserving water on the MPCA web site and the EPA web site.

MPCA striving to hold all SST professionals accountable for work quality

During the annual Minnesota Onsite Wastewater Association’s (MOWA) annual meeting in Duluth in January, MPCA SSTS Manager Jim Ziegler provided an update on the SSTS program in Minnesota.

Ordinance adoption – All counties have updated their SSTS ordinances to reflect current state rules and regulations. Of the approximately 141 cities, townships and special purpose local governmental units, 105 have updated their ordinances while another 20 are working through the ordinance adoption process.

Grants – The MPCA awards incentive grants to counties that have provisions in their ordinances that go above and beyond the minimum program requirements. The MPCA has been working with counties through the SSTS Implementation and Enforcement Task Force to identify the most beneficial ways to use incentive grants ($195,000 awarded in 2016) to accelerate SSTS compliance across the state. Information on the next round of grants will be sent to counties in May.

Licensing and certification – In the past, Ziegler says, work in this area focused mainly on ensuring that SSTS installers were qualified and properly licensed for the work they were doing. But, he adds, it’s important to ensure all SSTS work is done by qualified individuals. “Those who review designs, issue permits and inspect systems for local programs play a critical role in maintaining the integrity of the SSTS program.”  To that end, Ziegler said it is important that a ‘qualified employee’ with the appropriate training signs-off on statements that certify work is being completed in accordance with requirements.

“These statements are an important way for us to know who is accountable for the work that’s being done,” Ziegler says. “They are required on design reports, as-builts, inspection reports and compliance management reporting. The MPCA is actively working to hold all qualified professionals accountable for their quality of work. Please notify SSTS regional staff if you suspect that someone is working without a license, outside of their authorizations, or has quality of work issues.”Ziegler expressed appreciation to MOWA members who have worked on the Need-to-Know process for SSTS specialty areas, “especially steering committee members who have volunteered many hours to dig into the weeds on a number of issues. The MPCA is committed to this process as the way to periodically update and align the job tasks, curriculum priorities and exam competencies that warrant certification for SSTS professionals.” Since 2013, six of nine task analyses and validation surveys have been completed and five of nine exams have been updated and piloted.

Enforcement – The MPCA was granted ticketing authority in 2014. Twelve citations were issued during 2015/16. Nine were for failure to submit as-builts, four for unlicensed work violations and three for not acquiring a needed permit. Some citations included multiple violations. The 2015/16 citations resulted in a total of $6,500 in penalties.

Northern Metals settles for $2.5 million, will move shredder from Minneapolis

A north Minneapolis metal recycler that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) alleged was contributing to poor air quality has agreed in a settlement to move its metal shredder to a non-metro location, pay a large penalty, reimburse the state’s costs, and provide funding to the city of Minneapolis for community health projects.

The settlement has been submitted to the Ramsey County District Court for final approval.  The settlement document (Consent Decree) is available on the MPCA’s North Minneapolis Air Monitoring Project webpage.

Under the settlement, Northern Metal Recycling will move the shredder to a new, non-metro location by August 2019 and pay $2.5 million in costs and penalties, including:

  • a $1 million civil penalty
  • payment for three years of continued air monitoring near the facility 
  • reimbursement to the state for past monitoring costs, court costs, and legal fees
  • $600,000 to the city of Minneapolis for community heath projects to benefit nearby communities. 

“This settlement is a welcome start to addressing a problem for residents in North Minneapolis who are already overburdened with health and pollution issues,” said MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine.  “The company recognized the serious nature of its violations, and they’ve chosen to take the right steps.”

“We know that North Minneapolis residents are concerned about allowing the shredder to continue operating for up to two-and-a-half years in that location,” Stine said.  “The company has made the improvements and passed the emissions testing we wanted them to complete, and they are complying with their permit.  They’ve committed to doing a better job, and we will be closely watching over their operation.”

Stine said that while pollutant levels in the area have been reduced since the partial shutdown and improvements made by Northern Metals, they’re still higher than the agency would like.  “We’ve got more work to do in that area,” he added.

The settlement is one of the largest ever negotiated by the MPCA.  The community funding provision settles claims by the city, which joined as a party to settlement negotiations last fall.  The city held two public meetings to get public input on the community health funding.

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges said in a statement, “This settlement provides a measure of environmental justice for the people of North Minneapolis. We will be using the settlement to do what the residents of North Minneapolis told us they wanted us to do with it: address and mitigate asthma and lead poisoning in the neighborhoods that have some of the highest child lead-poisoning rates in our city and the highest asthma hospitalization rate in our state.”

The settlement resolves an action that Northern Metals started in Ramsey County District Court in the spring of 2015 to try to shut down MPCA air monitors near the shredder.  It also ends a process the MPCA began to revoke Northern Metals’ operating permit after determining the company had not provided accurate information in its permit application or in response to MPCA requests for information.

The MPCA began monitoring air quality near the facility, at 2800 N. Pacific St., in the fall of 2014.  The monitor found particulate matter above state standards.  To investigate further, the agency added a second monitor to “bookend” the facility.  Data from these monitors suggested emissions from Northern Metals were contributing to violations of the standard.

Analysis of a year’s worth of data in the spring of 2016 showed air around the facility also had elevated levels of lead, chromium, cobalt and nickel.  This finding, along with MPCA’s discovery that Northern Metals was operating an unpermitted source of particulates, prompted the agency to ask the court to shut down the facility.  The unpermitted source also was a basis of MPCA’s action to revoke the facility’s operating permit.

When calculating penalties, the MPCA takes into account how seriously the violations affected the environment, whether they were first-time or repeat violations, and how promptly the violations were reported to authorities. The agency also attempts to recover the calculated economic benefit gained by failure to comply with environmental laws in a timely manner.

Broadcast version

Northern Metal Recycling, a Minneapolis metal-shredder in North Minneapolis, has agreed to move to a new, non-metro location in 2019.  The company also will pay $2.5 million in costs and penalties, including $600,000 to the city of Minneapolis to fund community health projects.

The settlement caps efforts by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to shut down the facility and revoke its permit.  The MPCA alleged the company submitted false or misleading information for its air quality permit, and added new emission sources after the permit was issued without informing the MPCA.  Both are serious violations of state and federal air quality rules.

New Ulm Public Safety and MPCA responding to mercury spill

The New Ulm Public Safety Dept. and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) are responding to a mercury spill reported Feb. 7 in the 100 block of North Garden Street in southern Minnesota city. The agencies believe there is no risk to the public at this time. They do ask the public to avoid this area as response crews clean up the spill and check surrounding structures for mercury that may have been tracked or spread.

A local waste hauler noticed the mercury spill in a dumpster and alerted authorities. Mercury is a silvery, liquid metal at room temperature, but like water, mercury can evaporate and become airborne. Its vapors are dangerous to inhale because they are toxic to the human nervous system.  Cold temperatures are preventing the mercury outside from vaporizing. Indoors, a significant amount of mercury vapor can build up at room temperature so it is important to clean up any traces. Mercury requires special cleanup because sweeping or vacuuming it can actually increase the risks.

Authorities believe a property owner removed about two gallons of mercury from their garage, disposing of it in the trash. About one gallon spilled in the dumpster. Authorities believe the mercury is isolated to the dumpster, alley and garbage truck where the mercury was found.

Crews are using special equipment to clean up the mercury and will dispose of it appropriately.

The MPCA responds to about 10 mercury spills a year on average. If people suspect they have mercury or other potentially hazardous materials, they should call their local Household Hazardous Waste program. Statewide, these programs collect about 100 pounds of mercury a year.

For spills of mercury or other suspected hazardous materials, call the Minnesota Duty Officer at 800-422-0798 or 651-649-5451, which is staffed 24 hours a day 7 days a week. The Duty Officer will connect residents and companies with someone who can advise on dealing with the spill.

Be sure to check your kitchen, bathroom and garage for mercury thermometers, blood pressure cuffs, fluorescent bulbs or other mercury-containing devices, and bring them to household hazardous waste programs for disposal. Take extra care not to break anything by putting mercury-containing devices inside a sealable plastic container.

It is unlawful to place mercury or mercury-containing devices in ordinary household garbage. Call your county’s solid waste officer for the location and hours of the household hazardous waste site nearest you.

For more information, go the MPCA’s Mercury webpage.

Broadcast version

The New Ulm Public Safety Department and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency are responding to a mercury spill reported February 7 in the 100 block of North Garden Street in southern Minnesota city. The agencies believe there is no risk to the public at this time. They are asking the public to avoid this area as response crews clean up the spill and check surrounding structures for mercury that may have been tracked or spread.

Authorities believe a property owner removed about two gallons of mercury from their garage, disposing of it in the trash. About one gallon spilled in the dumpster. Authorities believe the mercury is isolated to the dumpster, alley, and garbage truck where the mercury was found.

Crews are using special equipment to clean up the mercury and will dispose of it appropriately.

MPCA to host public meetings Jan. 12 & 26, for Mississippi Headwaters water quality projects

Brainerd, Minn.– The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has scheduled two public informational meetings to provide updates and answer questions regarding ongoing water quality projects in the Mississippi River-Headwaters watershed. The meetings are scheduled for Jan. 12, 5:30-7:30 p.m., at Bemidji City Hall, 317 4th St. NW, Bemidji; and Jan. 26, 6:00-8:00 p.m., at the Cohasset Community Center, 305 1st Ave. NW, Cohasset.

The Mississippi River-Headwaters Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategies (WRAPS) project began in October 2012. Since then, the MPCA and area partners have collected extensive water quality monitoring data on lakes, rivers and streams throughout the watershed. Assessments of the data have led to two lakes being addressed through individual water quality studies to determine causes, and find solutions to excess nutrient pollution, mainly phosphorus. Those lakes are Lake Irving in Bemidji, and Little Turtle Lake, about ten miles north of Bemidji. The lake studies are known as Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDLs.

The WRAPS project will also establish protection strategies to maintain the long-term health of surface waters throughout the watershed that do meet state water quality standards.

MPCA staff, and area partners, will present information about this WRAPS project, answer your questions and offer opportunity for citizens to get involved in the process.

For questions about this project or the public meetings, contact MPCA Watershed Project Manager Phil Votruba at 218-316-3901. More information on the WRAPS process can be found on the Mississippi River-Headwaters watershed web page.

MPCA Offers $400,000 in grants to clean up old diesel engines

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) encourages owners of older, heavy-duty diesel engines to apply for new grant funding to upgrade or swap out their dirty old engines for modern ones that pollute far less.

“Old, fully operating garbage trucks, bulldozers or barges may be eligible for funds to upgrade emission controls or repower them with new cleaner engines,” said Mark Sulzbach, MPCA’s Clean Diesel grants manager. “Diesel owners can save on fuel and maintenance while drastically cutting air pollution,” he said.

For example, using a 2015 grant, Caledonia Haulers of Caledonia, Minn. replaced a diesel truck and saved $6,700 in fuel and maintenance costs in its first nine months of operation.

The grants have cut air pollution from heavy equipment ranging from rock crushers to a paddleboat. This past summer, the grants helped repower three garbage and roll-off trucks, two long-haul beverage trucks, a snowplow and two diesel school buses.  For 2017, the agency has about $400,000 in grant funds available.

Big diesels manufactured before 2007 spew far more than their share of harmful pollution, so upgrading or replacing these engines gives a lot of air-quality bang for the buck.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates every dollar spent on reducing diesel pollution saves 13 dollars in health-care costs.

The grants require that vehicles to be upgraded are fully operational, and if the engine is replaced, the old engine is permanently disabled so it can’t pollute again.  Grant applications must be in by Dec. 22, 2016 To apply, use the forms at

MPCA completes 37 enforcement cases in third quarter of 2016

In its ongoing efforts to promote environmental compliance, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency concluded 37 enforcement cases in 28 counties throughout Minnesota during the third quarter of 2016.  Penalties from all 37 cases totaled just under $275,000.

Environmental enforcement investigations often take several months, and in highly complex cases more than a year. Although, in rare instances, they can involve courts, they are most often negotiated settlements where the goal is compliance with environmental rules. Fines issued are targeted to match the environmental harm and economic advantage gained by not complying with applicable regulations.

In addition to these 37 recently-completed cases, the MPCA also has 52 ongoing enforcement investigations, 19 of which were opened as new cases during the third quarter of 2016.  Not all investigations lead to fines or other official action.

Imposing monetary penalties is only part of the MPCA’s enforcement process.  Agency staff continue to provide assistance, support, and information on the steps and tools necessary to achieve compliance for any company, individual, or local government that requests it.

The following is a brief summary of all 37 cases completed during the third quarter of 2016:

  • U.S. Steel Corp., Keewatin, for air quality violations, $49,500
  • Ever Cat Fuels LLC, Isanti, for emergency response, stormwater, hazardous waste and tanks violations, $30,000
  • Hibbing Taconite Company, Hibbing, for air quality violations, $23,000
  • East Central Landfill, Mora, for stormwater violations, $18,657
  • Kevitt Excavating, Crystal, for solid waste violations, $14,000
  • Endres Processing LLC & Endres Farms, Rosemount, for air quality violations, $13,625
  • Hearth Development LLC, Little Canada, for stormwater violations, $10,568
  • Hometown BioEnergy, Le Sueur, for air quality violations, $9,820
  • Badger Equipment Co., Winona, for hazardous waste and air quality violations, $8,350
  • Hassan Sand and Gravel Inc., Rogers, for wastewater violations, $8,000
  • Fiedler Your Pumping Specialist Inc., Royalton, for subsurface septic treatment systems violations, $7,700
  • Perham Resource Recovery Facility and Prairie Lakes Municipal Solid Waste Authority, Perham, for air quality violations, $7,500
  • Geotek, Stewartville, for air quality violations, $7,220
  • Peter W. Hartwig, Welcome, for feedlot violations, $6,460
  • Knife River Central Minnesota, Sauk Rapids, for wastewater violations, $5,750
  • Calvin Buddensiek, Springfield, for subsurface septic treatment systems violations, $5,275
  • Professional Plating Inc., Anoka, for hazardous waste violations, $5,035
  • City of St. Louis Park, St. Louis Park, for wastewater violations, $5,023
  • Kenneth J. Gabriel, dba Kountry Kare Septic Inc., Park Rapids, for subsurface septic treatment systems violations, $4,675
  • Mike Richison, Granada, for solid waste violations, $4,565
  • RR Donnelley, Long Prairie, for hazardous waste violations, $3,125
  • North American Land Co. LLC, Arden Hills, for stormwater violations, $2,940
  • Fiberglas Fabricators Inc., Le Center, for air quality violations, $2,750
  • Swift Properties Group LLP, Montevideo, for wastewater violations, $2,675
  • Winco Inc., Le Center, for air quality violations, $2,500
  • Par Piping and Fabrication LLC, Granite Falls, for air quality violations, $1,688
  • Roseville Auto Body, New Brighton, for air quality violations, $1,688
  • Connie’s Body Shop, Houston, for air quality violations, $1,688
  • Roberts Management Group, Arden Hills, for stormwater violations, $1,585
  • Mike Badger, dba MC Concrete & Excavating, Rochester, for subsurface septic treatment systems violations, $1,565
  • Kellogg Auto Body LLC, Kellogg, for air quality violations, $1,563
  • Jeanette Carlson and George Carlson, Detroit Lakes, for solid waste violations, $1,250
  • Mark Hagen, H&R Block Building, Fosston, for solid waste violations, $1,000
  • Lowell Scholtes Property, Slayton, for solid waste violations, $1,000
  • Lyle Julson Farm, Grand Meadow, for solid waste violations, $850
  • Barnum wastewater treatment facility, Barnum, for water quality violations, $700
  • Wheaton-Dumont Coop Elevator, Dumont, for solid waste violation, $550

A complete summary of environmental enforcement actions and news releases can be found on the MPCA’s News Media Center Web page.  For questions on specific enforcement cases, please contact Stephen Mikkelson, Information Officer at 218-316-3887, or toll free at 1-800-657-3864.

MPCA seeks to generate comments on a new electrical power station being planned

St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota Municipal Power Agency (MMPA) is proposing to build, own, and operate a new electric power generating facility in Carver County, Minnesota.

The plan includes constructing a facility on approximately 2 acres of a 12.37-acre land parcel in Chaska, Minnesota, and installing five natural gas-fired electrical generating units capable of producing up to 50 megawatts of electricity. The project is expected to take about 12 months to construct.

Once in operation, the new electric generating station will be known as the Chaska Energy Park Facility (CEP Facility). The CEP Facility will provide an additional outlet of electricity for the city of Chaska and to the other MMPA member communities of Anoka, Arlington, Brownton, Buffalo, East Grand Forks, Elk River, Le Sueur, North St. Paul, Olivia, Shakopee, and Winthrop.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has prepared an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) on the proposed new electrical power generating station. The EAW details the site location, construction activities, air emissions, water and wastewater use, and more. The EAW is available on the MPCA web site at

Comments on the environmental assessment worksheet must be in writing and submitted by 4:30 p.m. on November 9, 2016 to Nancy Drach (651-757-2317) at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 520 Lafayette Road N., St. Paul, MN 55155-4194.

Wet weather challenging manure storage capacity

Heavy rains over the last two months, and predictions for significant precipitation again this weekend, have two State agencies working with livestock groups, farming organizations and counties to find options for farmers dealing with manure storage issues. Officials with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) say several farmers have called to report full or nearly full, and in rare cases, overflowing manure storage basins where their capacity is being tested by heavy rains. The reported overflows were addressed quickly with minimal environmental impacts.

Now the MPCA and MDA are asking all farmers to make similar calls about how their manure storage is holding up during the wet conditions.

“We appreciate farmers contacting the MPCA, State Duty Officer and County Feedlot Officers about this problem,” says MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine. “This is how we want regulated businesses to respond — by working with us as partners to address real-life ongoing issues. This kind of proactive step on their part opens the door to us working together to help producers solve manure storage capacity problems. We certainly understand farmers, along with many other Minnesotans, are facing unusual challenges from the heavy rains we’ve had this year.”

According to the MPCA and MDA, the immediate challenge is the capacity of manure storage basins and they ask farmers to communicate proactively with the State Duty Officer to report if their basin is full or near full.  County Feedlot Officers also want to hear from producers who may have storage room to spare, as it may be needed in emergency situations. The CFO’s will provide advice on best management practices for farmers to minimize impacts.

Farmers are asked to the State Duty Officer — 1-800-422-0798

Tips on bad weather manure management are available in the Managing manure, land application during adverse weather conditions fact sheet.

In addition to immediate manure storage issues, both agencies are in communication with agriculture trade groups to lay out contingency plans for fall application of the manure to fields, which will also likely be impacted by the wet weather trend. MPCA and MDA encourage farmers to stay connected as more details become available on fall contingency options for manure application.

MPCA seeks comments on proposed projects at Flint Hills’ Rosemount facility

Flint Hills Resources Pine Bend LLC, in Rosemount, a crude-oil processing plant, is proposing a collection of projects designed to increase the facility’s energy efficiency, reduce its air emissions and improve its processing capabilities. The projects include:

  • Replacing two pieces of equipment known as coking process units with a single modern unit and a gas-recovery unit. Replacing the two existing cokers with a new one will decrease the facility’s nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 350 tons per year.  
  • Installing new and improving existing equipment to produce more ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel. 
  • Modifying equipment to allow the facility to increase its production of gasoline, diesel fuel, and other products. 

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has prepared an Environmental Assessment Worksheet on the proposed facility changes to describe the project and outline its potential impact on the environment. The EAW details the site location, nearby bodies of water and groundwater, soil types, air and odor emissions, noise concerns and more. The EAW is available on the MPCA website at

Comments on the environmental assessment worksheet must be submitted in writing by 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 26, 2016 to Charles Peterson (651-757-2856) at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 520 Lafayette Road N., St. Paul, MN 55155-4194.

Fall 2016

2015 Minnesota SSTS Annual Report available this fall

Info from counties, other LGUs, show positive trends continuing: more good, less bad and ugly


The 2015 Minnesota SSTS Annual Report is expected to be published sometime around the middle of October when it will be available on the MPCA website. While the data is still being analyzed and some numbers are subject to change, many of the positive trends reported over the past few years by local units of government that manage SSTS programs are continuing. Those trends include:

  • The estimated percentage of SSTS that are compliant with current standards is increasing (65% in 2008, 79% in 2015).
  • The estimated number of SSTS that pose an imminent threat to public health (septage backing up into home, pooling on the ground, running straight to a ditch or stream, etc.) is decreasing (56,000 systems in 2007, 27,000 in 2015).
  • The estimated number of SSTS that do not have the necessary vertical separation from seasonally saturated soil and so likely fail to protect groundwater is down (117,000 in 2008, 85,000 in 2015, a decrease of 32,000 systems).

Our understanding of the actual number of SSTS in the state and the percentage of those systems that protect groundwater and human health is improving as local governments continue to invest time and effort in activities that provide more accurate estimates, such as developing databases, reviewing old files, completing SSTS inventories and adopting ordinances that facilitate more compliance inspections.

Child’s death highlights importance of inspecting/securing septic tank lids

By Nick Haig

Earlier this year, a 22-month old toddler fell in a septic tank near Two Harbors, Minn. He was airlifted to a hospital, but passed away hours later from what are believed to be complications from the fall. This tragedy has been difficult to process for those of us in the septic system industry. I have spoken with many professionals that have expressed shock, sadness, heartbreak, and grief.  Perhaps it hits so close to home for many of us because we have families, children, nieces, nephews, and neighbors that we care for deeply and would be devastated to find fallen to a similar fate. We see septic tanks every day and have observed outdated, dilapidated, or otherwise insecure tank access. We also recognize that tank lids age, and a scuff does not warrant an expensive riser and maintenance hole replacement. Every day we face the challenges presented by running a business, meeting the code, and doing right by our customers and clients.

While certain situations are more obvious than others, every situation is different, and it can be difficult to judge the risk to public health when assessing the condition of a maintenance hole. Most of our onsite encounters are not in an official capacity to assess the system’s compliance status – just to pump the tank or troubleshoot a problem or consult with a client. What is our responsibility to say something when we see a potentially dangerous situation? How insistent should we be that tank lids are secure when we leave a site? What does secure mean?

This article highlights the risks, responsibilities and requirements when you see a potentially dangerous situation. Hopefully it will provoke some thought about how you can position your business to minimize risks and maybe help prevent a tragedy like this from ever occurring again. I want to be clear that little is publicly known about the events that led to this tragedy, and it has been called “accidental in nature” by first responders. But, I also want us to acknowledge that we, as septic professionals, are more likely than the general public to observe a potential safety hazard and we should be prepared to address this risk every day.


Tank access covers come in a variety of materials and styles – each of which has a designed method for preventing unwanted access. Some lids need to be locked, bolted, or screwed. The sheer weight and configuration of concrete lids is usually enough of a deterrent to prevent accidental or casual entry. It isn’t only weak or damaged maintenance hole covers at the surface, like the ones seen below, that present a safety hazard. Entire tanks and tank lids have collapsed under pressure in the past, which is one major reason old tanks must be properly abandoned.



Note the cracks on the green plastic tank cover above. Even if it is properly screwed in place – the crack introduces a structural deficiency that no longer makes it safe. Look at the picture of the concrete lid on the left. You can see where the edges of the tank and riser lid have corroded to create a sloped edge. This lid can quickly become a “teeter-totter” or game for curious children with potentially disastrous consequences. The most important question you can ask yourself when assessing the safety or security of a lid is, “Would you let a child play on or near it?”  If the answer is no, do something about it.


Your responsibility to the owner, to the site, and to the local governmental unit depends on what you are doing on the site and what you discover when you are there. You can play it safe by answering the question, “Would I let a child play on or around this system?”  There are three levels of responsibilities:

1.      Notification – professionals have an obligation to report their observations to their customers. Maintainers need to communicate the status of maintenance hole access in their report to the owner.

2.      Declaration – inspectors must identify non secure tanks as an imminent threat to public health and safety and report their findings to the system owner and local unit of government.

3.      Repairs – the code requires that tank maintenance hole covers be sound, durable, and “secured” after maintenance. What constitutes secure and who is responsible for doing it is largely left to the professional, owners, and local requirements.

If you come across a septic tank cover that is not sound or durable, you should insist something be done about it. You can outfit your trucks with supplies and prepare your employees to address the most concerning situations before they even leave the site. DANGER or CAUTION stickers can double as a smart marketing tool when your phone number and website are printed alongside the notice.

If an owner absolutely refuses additional measures, you can refuse to pump the tank and still charge a flat service fee. If you do perform the maintenance service, you must leave the tank cover in a durable and sound condition, which may mean replacing the cover. You should make your recommendations and any owner refusal very clear on your report to the system owner. You should also consider notifying the local unit of government when unsafe conditions exist.


Chapter 7080 has always explicitly referred to “unsecured, damaged, or weak maintenance hole covers” as an imminent threat to public health and safety. It has also always required that maintenance hole covers be left in a sound and durable condition, in addition to being “secured” after a tank is pumped. In the 2008 rule revision, the MPCA clarified what “secure” means for systems that were installed or have had tank access brought to grade after 2008:

The definition of “secure” depends on three primary factors:

1.      The local SSTS program’s definition of “secure” – different local standards apply to these requirements.

2.      The date of system installation – the vast majority of systems in the state were installed before 2008, and are not required to meet the prescriptive standards above unless the access is raised to grade or other local requirements apply.  However, this never means it is acceptable to simply allow unsafe conditions to continue.

3.      The depth of cover – tanks installed prior to 2008 may continue to have below grade access, but these systems must never present a risk of collapse under pressure.


1.      Educate your customers about the critical importance of lid safety.

2.      Be prepared – load supplies and prepare employees to address these situations.

3.      Ensure primary restraint – do not leave a site with a maintenance hole that is not sound or durable.

4.      Consider secondary restraint – if you aren’t sure if it really needs to be replaced, consider some of the secondary restraints on the market.

5.      Be partners, and not adversaries, with your local program – work together to identify and address problems that pose real threats to people’s safety.

MPCA gets to bottom of Beaver Lake “septic” spill

On a weekend in early August, the sheriff’s office in Steele County received a call from residents on Beaver Lake near Ellendale reporting a large amount of “septic waste” had contaminated the lake.As a precaution, the sheriff’s office closed access to the lake and issued a warning. “The callers said they could see toilet paper and other materials you might expect came from a septic system floating in the water in a very widespread matt of brown/purple-colored material that had a bad odor to it,” says Steven Oscarson, the MPCA staff person called upon to help investigate the situation.When Oscarson arrived on Monday, an environmental services crew was on the scene, containing and collecting the material. People in the neighborhood suspected a faulty septic system might be the source of the contamination but Oscarson said it wasn’t likely one system could be responsible for the amount of material found in the lake.He said the substance also did not have the odor or color typically associated with septic waste, nor did it contain any of the items commonly found in septic waste as first reported by callers. So while Oscarson and others on the scene that day thought the spill was not from septic systems, other possibilities remained, such as runoff from a feedlot upstream.A sample of the material was tested. It turned out to be a type of algae that has the potential of becoming toxic to humans and animals.It’s not clear if the algae formed in the lake or was washed into the lake through a culvert connected to a nearby wetland after heavy rains in the area.Oscarson said even though it turned out this was not a case of a septic spill, he appreciated the fact someone reported a situation that might have been a septic spill and one which did indeed turn out to pose a potential health issue. He said the case also highlights the fact that early reports about a situation or event often contain information that later turns out to be incorrect.

Fixing septic systems in rocky MN county no longer a pipe dream

Building your home directly on bedrock is great, when it comes to the foundation, terrible when it comes to installing a septic system. Septic systems need at least three feet of the proper type of soil in order to adequately treat septic waste for pathogens such as bacteria and viruses.

Minnesota Public Radio Reporter John Enger went to Rainy Lake earlier this summer to cover the story of how Koochiching County began a project 20 years ago to connect homes along the lake to a central wastewater processing system via a six-inch pipe channel bored through 15 miles of solid granite. The reporter spoke with the MPCA’s Aaron Jensen as part of the story (available online).

Governor Dayton declares Sept. 19-23 SepticSmart Week in Minnesota

Because proper care and maintenance  of septic systems is vital to protecting public health; preserving our groundwater, lakes and streams; and avoiding costly repairs that can result from neglect, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton has declared this week Septic Smart Week in Minnesota.Learn how your septic system works and how you can keep it working for years and years. This interactive model developed by the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority in Texas shows you how it all works.

2016 tank fee submission reminder

The Minnesota Legislature passed a bill in 2003 that requires SSTS installers to pay a $25 fee for each septic system tank they install. Since then, the process installers need to follow to submit those fees has been changed to better track and account for the fees.

One problem that arose was the MPCA was receiving random checks here and there as installers installed  tanks. That made recordkeeping and accountability difficult, says the MPCA’s Kristi Kalk. In 2014 the Legislature updated the tank fee regulations to require the MPCA to send installers an invoice they must use when submitting tank installation fees to the state. Kalk says the process is still being fine-tuned internally, but the steps installers need to follow for submitting 2016 tank fees are the same as they were in 2015.

Steps for submitting 2016 tank installation fees

1.      Work with local governmental units (LGUs) to verify the number of tanks installed during the 2016 calendar year.

2.      In November of this year, installers will again receive a copy of the SSTS Tank Fee Record/Submission form. All installers need to complete both sides of the form and return it to the MPCA by Jan. 31, 2017. This form will also be available on the MPCA website. DO NOT include payment with the form.

3.      Even if you did not install any tanks in 2016, you still need to indicate this on the form and return it to the MPCA. Enter a zero on the form where it asks for the number of tanks installed in 2016.

4.      Installers that report installing one or more septic system tanks in 2016 will receive an invoice from the MPCA in April 2017 for payment. Payment submissions should include both the invoice and the payment. Failure to pay these invoices within 30 days could lead to an enforcement action including license revocation.

Local governments will still submit tank installation counts in their annual reports to the MPCA. The MPCA will use these reports to audit the number of tanks installed reported by installers. If discrepancies are found, the MPCA will contact the installer to follow up.  Discrepancies could result in an enforcement action.

Mid-century furniture, still cool; mid-century septic systems, not so much

Septic system design/construction requirements have changed a lot over the years to better protect human health and groundwater/surface waters from pathogens and nutrients. A homeowner getting a new septic system this summer gave this photo to a Goodhue County inspector. It shows the home’s old septic tank being installed in the 1960s.If you’ve got an interesting septic-related photo to share (whether from the good old days or today), send it along with a description or brief story. It can be historical or current, serious or “toilet humor” (within reason of course) like the photo below (read the Canadian plumber’s story here).Just email your photo the editor.If the image is in hard copy form, you can use a smartphone to take a picture of it and forward the image to the email above.


NE Minneapolis recycling company working with MPCA to improve air quality

Saint Paul, Minn. — Saying they want to work toward the highest level of pollution protection for their customers, vendors and company neighbors, Alliance Recycling Group, also known as Alliance Steel Service Co. recently reached an agreement with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). Under terms of the agreement Alliance will take several steps in their operating procedures that will reduce the potential for dust and other air pollutants to leave their property or be potentially harmful to area citizens, employees, customers and vendors.

“We appreciate the company agreeing to work proactively and cooperatively with the MPCA rather than waiting for the MPCA to take action” says MPCA Land and Air Compliance Section Manager Sarah Kilgriff. “They’re taking the lead to set a great example we hope other businesses will follow.”

Alliance is one of several businesses in an industrial area northeast of downtown Minneapolis near the Lowry Avenue bridge that contribute to air emissions in the area. In 2014, ambient air monitors, which take general air samples for an area (as opposed to a specific facility), began detecting levels of particulate matter above ambient air quality standards.  In early 2016, the MPCA was able to determine that there were also elevated levels of heavy metals.  Analysis of more than a year’s worth of data showed that levels of airborne heavy metals near the site are near or above health benchmarks.

As soon as the monitoring levels showed a health concern, MPCA compliance and enforcement staff began connecting with area businesses to make them aware of the situation and invite them to take extra steps to help improve the area air quality. Most businesses have been open to discuss the topic, but Alliance is the first to sign an agreement with the MPCA that will commit them to take several specific steps to reduce particulate matter emissions.

“We just felt this agreement will make Alliance a better company and provide more air pollution protection for our customers than we ever imagined,” says Larry Zweigbaum, Environmental Officer of Alliance Recycling Group. “It really wasn’t a difficult choice for us. We want to provide the highest level of pollution protection for our workers, our customers, our vendors and neighbors of this industrial area. We found our negotiation with the MPCA to be constructive, honest and productive.”

Among other things the agreement commits Alliance to several activities that will reduce or minimize dust, expanding sweeping of paved areas, setting materials on railcars rather than dropping the materials, and taking steps to reduce or eliminate the pounding or tamping of materials in railcars to compress it.

“What a great example of the Minnesota business ethic,” says MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine. “We don’t expect the steps Alliance Recycling has agreed to will resolve this air quality challenge by themselves, but their action is a tremendous choice nonetheless.”

MPCA announces members of first Environmental Justice Advisory Group

Saint Paul, Minn. — Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Commissioner John Linc Stine, with the assistance of a selection committee, has invited 16 individuals from around Minnesota to advise the MPCA on matters related to environmental justice.  The group will provide input and recommendations about ways to incorporate the principles of environmental justice into the agency’s work.

Along with other state agencies, the MPCA is striving to achieve equitable treatment and engagement of all people. In doing so, all Minnesotans will benefit from healthy air, land and water.

“It’s easy to talk about remedying the disproportionate impacts of past pollution and preventing future harm, but much more difficult to put those words into action,” said Commissioner Stine. “This advisory group is an important step in making sure that equity is addressed in our work.”

The MPCA’s environmental justice framework outlines goals and strategies to ensure that all Minnesotans benefit equally from environmental protection. Forming the Environmental Justice Advisory Group is one step intended to increase accountability and engagement between the public and the agency.

The advisory group will provide recommendations and advise the MPCA Commissioner in four key areas, including:

  • Evaluating the effectiveness of the MPCA in implementing its environmental justice framework, including assisting the agency in determining ways to measure success; 
  • Providing recommendations to the MPCA Commissioner on improvements to policies and procedures to ensure integration of environmental justice principles into the agency’s work; 
  • Providing input to the MPCA on activities and timeframes for framework implementation; and 
  • Collaborating with the MPCA to improve civic engagement around environmental justice issues and acting as liaisons to strengthen communication and relations.   

The MPCA expects the first meeting of the advisory group to be in October 2016.  All meetings will be open to the public.

More information about the advisory group, the selection process and MPCA’s environmental justice work can be found on the Environmental Justice webpage.

Members of the MPCA’s Environmental Justice Advisory Group

Maryan Abdinur — Maryan was born in Somalia and has worked as an interpreter for Doctors Without Borders as well as for health care providers here in Minnesota. Maryan is currently the Community Based Food Systems Program Organizer with Land Stewardship Project. She also serves on the board of the Minn. Association for Environmental Education.

Lea Foushee — A long-time environmental justice activist in Minnesota, Lea is involved in indigenous women’s issues and is a mentor to the new generation of activists.  Lea co-founded the North American Water Office in 1982, and advised the MPCA on the development of its Environmental Justice Framework.

Sarah Goodspeed — Sarah is a Policy Analyst with the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy. Sarah previously worked for Hennepin County as an Environmental Education and Multicultural Outreach Coordinator, and for the Minnesota Chicano Latino Affairs Council as a Legislative and Community Relations Manager.

Boise Jones — Boise is a community activist and independent consultant who works on environmental justice issues with a recent focus on North Minneapolis.   Boise has served on the Governor’s Climate Change Advisory Council and the MPCA’s mercury reduction oversight group.  Boise was active in advising the MPCA on development of its Environmental Justice Framework.

Winona LaDuke — Winona is the executive director of both White Earth Land Recovery Project and Honor the Earth, and has extensive experience working on tribal land claims and preservation, as well as sustainable development.

Asha Long — Asha is a founding organizer with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis, and also works for the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group as an organizer.

David Manuel — David is a member of the Red Lake nation. He is a beekeeper, gardener, and wild rice harvester and works for the Red Lake Local Food Initiative.

Jennifer Nguyen Moore — Jennifer is the City of Bloomington’s Sustainability Coordinator. She has experience working with new immigrant and non-English speaking communities and has training in meeting facilitation and action planning.

Shirley Nordrum — Shirley is a Local Extension Educator with the University of Minnesota. She is the founder and former Director of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe’s Environmental Department.

Mariela Ojeda — Mariella is a former MN GreenCorps member who served with the Latino Economic Development Center and provided technical assistance to Latino-owned businesses to help them reduce their environmental impact.

LaShella Sims — LaShella is a North Minneapolis resident and a Senior Organizer with the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing. She directs much of her personal and professional energy toward organizing around transit.

Halston Sleets — Halston is an Environmental Planning Analyst with Hennepin County. She has worked with indigenous communities in Denali National Park on policy reform regarding subsistence hunting, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in environmental policy.

Mahyar Sorour — Mahyar has experience recruiting, training, and organizing youth around environmental justice issues from her work as a Campus Organizer with the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group. She serves on the board of MN 350 and has focused much of her organizing work around the Clean Power Plan and climate change.

Steve Sternberg — Steve is an Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Minnesota Duluth. His work focuses on environmental engineering issues, including industrial wastewater pre-treatment, landfill design, groundwater contamination modeling, climate change, air pollution and environmental justice impacts.

Anita Urvina Davis — Anita is a North Minneapolis resident and a former Multicultural Environmental Outreach and Education Liaison for Hennepin County. She has extensive experience coordinating efforts between counties, nonprofit organizations, and State agencies. She currently manages grants for the Community POWER Education program.

Joan Vanhala — Joan is a resident of the Phillips neighborhood and has extensive experience working on environmental justice issues and creating and community engagement processes that result in sustainable solutions. She was active in advising the MPCA on development of its Environmental Justice Framework. She currently works for the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability as a Coalition Organizer.

Court orders Northern Metals to shut down part of its North Minneapolis operations

Saint Paul, Minn. — On Monday, Aug. 29, Ramsey County District Court Judge John Guthmann ordered Northern Metals, a metal shredding and recovery company, to shut down part of the operation called the metals recovery plant and an attached rain and snow shed at its facility in North Minneapolis.  These portions, together known as the MRP, must be idled beginning on Sept. 2, 2016, and cannot be used until the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) either issues a modified air permit for the facility or the company proves to the agency that the MRP does not cause or contribute to the ongoing air quality violations in the area.

“We’re still reviewing the order to understand all the details,” said MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine, “but overall we’re pleased with the judge’s decision.”

The order came after the MPCA asked the court to issue an injunction earlier this summer.

The MPCA issued an air permit to Northern Metals in 2012.  Following concerns about poor air quality expressed by neighbors, legislators and the city of Minneapolis, the MPCA set up an ambient air monitor near the facility in 2014.  The monitor found elevated levels of particulates, lead and other metals and, in response, the MPCA set up another monitor in 2015.

Through investigations at the site, the MPCA discovered that the company was not following its permit, had not provided critical information to the MPCA during the permit process, and that it had made changes to the facility that increased emissions without the agency’s approval. In response, the agency initiated a separate action to revoke the facility’s permit in May 2016. The company requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge; a ruling on that request is expected this fall.

“Our job is to issue permits that protect human health and the environment”, says, David Thornton, MPCA Assistant Commissioner for air quality issues. “When permittees don’t do what the law and their permit requires, it puts people at risk. We believe that Northern Metals is a significant contributor to the ongoing air violations in North Minneapolis and the court’s decision is a great step forward for the people living in those neighborhoods. While Northern Metals has made improvements to its facility, we expect them to respect the law and comply with the Judge’s order.”

MPCA extends comment period for draft 2016 impaired waters list

Rochester, Minn. — At the request of stakeholders, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is extending the public comment period for the draft 2016 impaired waters list by 30 days.  The MPCA released the list on July 13, followed by a series of public meetings and a public comment period from Aug. 1-31. The extension means the agency will now accept written comments through Sept. 30, 2016.

The list represents an assessment of how well lakes and streams support fishing, swimming and other beneficial uses. Water bodies that fail to meet standards are considered “impaired.” This assessment is mandated by federal law and requires a cleanup study for each impaired water body.

New to the list this year:

  • 304 stream sections and 9 lakes that fail to support the number and quality of aquatic life — fish and bugs — that they should support according to research.
  • 41 sections of streams — most in southern Minnesota — that fail to meet new standards designed to prevent algae detrimental to aquatic life and recreation like fish and swimming. The MPCA assessed 600-plus rivers and found that 340 stream sections do meet the standard, 41 do not, and the rest need more data for a determination. Nutrient standards have been in place for lakes since 2008, and standards for rivers went into effect in 2014.  The agency may list more rivers as impaired by nutrients in future years as it further analyzes their potential to grow algae.
  • 83 water bodies, including 2 areas of Lake Superior with beaches, with bacteria levels too high to meet standards. Bacteria can make water unsuitable for swimming and other recreation. Sources of bacteria include manure runoff, livestock in streams, and failing sewer systems.
  • 78 water bodies with mercury levels in fish tissue or in the water that are too high to meet standards. Mercury can be toxic to humans and that’s why the state of Minnesota issues fish consumption advisories. The largest sources of mercury in Minnesota’s environment come from air emissions like coal burning and taconite.  About 90 percent of the mercury deposited on Minnesota comes from other states and countries.

In all, the number of impaired Minnesota waters on the draft 2016 list totals 4,603, with 582 new listings.

Comments, which must be in writing, should be submitted by 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 30 to Miranda Nichols, MPCA, 520 Lafayette Rd N, St. Paul, MN 55155 (must provide a return address) or

After the public comment period, the agency may make changes based on comments and then submit the list, along with comments received and agency responses, to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for approval.

For details, visit the MPCA’s website at and search for “impaired waters.”