Water wars: West Lakeland Township residents balk at $154 million expense to address 3M pollution

Water wars: West Lakeland Township residents balk at 4 million expense to address 3M pollution
Steve Norenberg stands for a photo on his 2 1/2 acre West Lakeland Township property on Wednesday, July 7, 2021. Norenberg is among a group of West Lakeland Township residents who oppose using $154 million of a 3M water pollution settlement fund to install a municipal water system. Norenberg and his neighbors are happy with their wells. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Homeowners in West Lakeland Township are pushing back against a state plan to build them a municipal water system with $154 million from the 3M pollution settlement.

At an overflow meeting last week, a boisterous group of about 100 residents said the pollution problem already has been solved by filters installed at every township house. It’s unthinkable, they say, to pipe water between houses that are often a quarter-mile apart, built on 2.5-acre lots.

“Everyone here is frustrated and angry,” said Steve Norenberg, one of the many residents who will not be joining the city water system.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimates the owners of 742 homes would agree to hook up to the system — about $208,000 per house.

Township engineer Ryan Stempski endorses the idea. “West Lakeland’s best long-term alternative would be to pursue a community water supply system,” he said in a March meeting.

A centralized water system would make it easier to clean up any pollutants, Stempski said, including those that might emerge in the future. And it would be too cumbersome for the township to manage the filters installed in each house, he said.

The township board of supervisors will make a decision about the system in August, according to chairman Dan Kyllo.

In 2018, 3M agreed to pay $850 million to settle an environmental damage lawsuit filed by the state, which alleged chemicals made by the company escaped into groundwater in the east metro.

Two state agencies – the Pollution Control Agency and the Department of Natural Resources – have been making plans to spend the $720 million that remained after legal expenses.

The agencies have allocated $430 million toward improving water systems, including a hefty $154 million for West Lakeland Township.

According to an MPCA report, the minimum water-system improvement costs for the affected communities will be:

  • Woodbury, $70 million;
  • Lake Elmo, $66 million;
  • Cottage Grove, $49 million;
  • St. Paul Park, $10 million;
  • Maplewood, $5 million;
  • Lakeland, Lakeland Shores and St. Croix Beach, $987,000;
  • Grey Cloud Island, $91,000;
  • Newport, $52,000;
  • Denmark Township, $10,000.

The report had no 2020 estimate for Oakdale but its 2040 projected costs were $24 million. Officials have not calculated estimates for the 112 acres owned by the Prairie Island Indian Community, near Manning Avenue and Interstate 94, because there are no residents on the land. But the water-related costs for 2040 were estimated to be $4 million.

Cost estimates vary greatly because the amount of pollution varies from place to place. Also, many cities already have spent millions to fix their pollution problems.

3M has spent more than $100 million on other remedies since traces of the chemicals first were discovered in groundwater in 2004. The company set aside $40 million in 2007, most of which already has been spent on water filters, wells and water mains in most affected cities — but not West Lakeland Township.

Township zoning requires that every house occupy a lot at least the size of two football fields. No improvements have been made to its water system because there is no water system. Every house has its own well, and every well has been fitted with a filtration system.

The MPCA says a typical filtration system will cost $1,000 annually to maintain.

HALF OF HOMES COULD SAY NO

Two advisory groups have spent three years studying how to spend the settlement money. They recommended the water-system upgrades for all affected communities, including West Lakeland Township.

The municipal system, they said, is what the township needs. “This determination was based on being protective of public health, workgroup input and long-term cost effectiveness,” the MPCA said on its website.

The state envisions a municipal system with a water tower, two wells, pumping stations and 41 miles of water mains. But it seems fewer than half of the township’s 4,200 residents would connect to it.

The pollution affects only the southern two-thirds of the township, making homes to the north ineligible for city water. And a poll found that 39 percent of eligible homeowners would not connect, and another 14 percent were undecided.

The township is giving homeowners the option of maintaining their private wells instead of connecting to city water.

Water-system opponents say that with houses so far apart, and with as many as half of homeowners committed to using their private wells, the pipes conceivably would run much farther between paying customers.

“This is ridiculous when there is already an effective solution already in place for about $1,000 per home per year,” homeowner Mike Graetz said.

Norenberg said he and other residents prefer not to get monthly water bills.

“Most of us have 2- or 3-acre lawns,” he said. “If I tell someone I am going to have a $700 water bill in summer, they would not view that as an improvement.”

To him, the traces of pollution are not a problem worth $154 million. “Let’s take that money and give it to Woodbury,” he said.

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