Northfield City Council has OK'd the final insurance claim on its wastewater treatment plant, ending a particularly unpleasant chapter for the city.

Three incidents — a flood, fire and pipe failure — with aging city infrastructure at the plant prompted a review by Nothfield's insurance company and led to a $7.4 million upgrade to the utility. Justin Wagner, Northfield utility manager, presented a report to the council during its July 20 meeting, breaking down the replacement costs as well as answering questions from council.

In all, the $7.4 million to replace damaged infrastructure and upgrades the system cost the city about $2.14 million; $5.26 million has so far been paid by the city's insurer, the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust. By closing out the claim, the council formally accepted the final insurance payment, an additional $64,300.

But because a portion of the project had already been identified as needing replacement, the city ended up saving about $1.76 million over what it would have spent had the fire never taken place, according information from Wagner and city Public Works Director David Bennett sent to the council.

In 2016, the city conducted a Wastewater Treatment Plant Facility Study. As part of the study, the biosolids processing equipment was reviewed and identified as needing to be replaced. The cost identified for the biosolids equipment, roof, sludge storage tank modifications and HVAC units, that were upgraded as part of the project, were $3.9 million. The city paid roughly $2.14 million for the new equipment, giving it about $1.76 million in savings.

In January 2018, a plugged pipe failure led to flooding in one of the plant's buildings; 5 feet of wastewater was released into its basement..

“It did require temporary hauling of liquid sludge and it required temporary treatment,” Wagner said.

A slideshow Wagner prepared showed 2018 photographs as evidence of the failures. Those were compared to current photos of the new equipment.

The fire in May 2018 inside the biosolids handing facility led to significant damage and required emergency biosolids hauling and temporary treatment and replacement of all processing equipment.

“Additionally, there were a few extra items that were replaced, the HVAC system was upgraded at that time, and the roof was replaced at the time, and all the processes were fully operating,” Wagner said.

That July, a pipe in the city’s wastewater sludge pump room failed, discharging 1 million gallons of untreated wastewater into the Cannon River, along with 6 feet of wastewater in the basement.

“All three of these incidents were separate and they all led to different conditions at the facility,” Wagner said.

The BAF building structure was not in need of replacement after the incidents, but all of the infrastructure equipment was replaced.

To help understand what may have led to the failures, the city hired Jacobs Engineering Group to conduct a holistic Operation Assessment Update and consider whether the facility was being operated properly.

That update resulted in 11 detailed recommendations, eight have already been checked off the list. That includes hiring a full-time maintenance planner scheduler and restructuring operator duties, along with mandated oversight and maintenance duties to be conducted at the city’s wastewater plant.

Wagner reported three recommendations remain on the list, though work on them is now underway:

• Establish a database and control system to manage the city’s existing spare parts inventory

• Establish a permit system to control the maintenance work performed in the plant-by- plant personnel and contractors

• Review and update safety program

Northfield Mayor Rhonda Pownell asked Wagner about a fire suppression system for the wastewater treatment plant.

Wagner said as part of the study, it was determined as part of the biosolids replacement equipment project that a fire suppression system was not needed  to meet the building code.

Wagner said $1 million dollars is available should a future ordinance require that.

The mayor followed up by asking that if there was another fire, what the city’s responsibility would be. Wagner reassured her that the city could not face any ramifications for not having fire suppression insurance, although the facility has smoke detectors.

The new equipment offers a big change, Wagner said, in comparison to the prior equipment. The old system had elements that could heat to 950 degrees, while the new system is chemical based, Wagner said. The new system is fully enclosed, so at no point will there be any oxygen inside. The new system is contained in pipes, he explained.

Reach Regional Managing Editor Suzanne Rook at 507-333-3134. ©Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved. 

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