By Sara Cronk
COKATO, MN At a special Cokato City Council meeting Jan. 20, the council voted to hire Flaherty and Hood as legal consultants for the phosphorus wastewater issue. This decision was reached after a long discussion about the options available to the council.
The city is required to lower phosphorus levels in wastewater to less than 0.44 mg/L, as required under the new wastewater facility permit. In order to reduce these levels, the two options available to Cokato are a new mechanical system or an upgrade to their current wastewater treatment facility.
The upgrade could cost up to $10 million less, but it cannot get the phosphorus levels down to the 0.44 mg/L requirement. If Cokato could get approval for a higher limit, this option would be available, but at the moment it is not. Engineering firm Bolton & Menk recommends the mechanical system. Regardless, the council does not believe Cokato can afford either option at the current cost.
The council missed the public comment period, the time when changes to the permit are most easily negotiated. After this window, the number of options available decreased. Council Member Forrest “Butch” Amundsen expressed displeasure over the missed opportunity, pointing out that “we are $10,000 to $12,000 into this thing.”
Cokato is not the only city dealing with this issue. Glencoe and Mankato are currently suing the Pollution Control Agency (PCA) over the issue.
Amundsen and fellow Council Member Paul Boger met with Daniel Marx, an attorney with Flaherty and Hood who specializes in environmental regulations. The legal fees would be between $5,000 and $10,000.
Multiple council members stressed the importance of not missing another opportunity like the public comment period, leading to a unanimous vote to hire Flaherty and Hood.
Upon initial conversation, the attorney gave Cokato officials three basic legal options: apply for a modification, apply for a variance, or appeal to the legislature for help.
City Administrator Annita Smythe contacted Senator Scott Newman’s office and spoke to his assistant about the issues Cokato is facing with this limit. Boger expressed concern that legislators would not back them against the farm lobbyists, however. The city intends to work with the attorney to look into further options.
The council also discussed getting the opinion of a second engineer, but ultimately decided to put that thought on hold.
These issues will be further discussed at the Monday, Feb. 13 Cokato City Council meeting.