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Paynesville Press - November 7, 2001

City aims to protect its water

By Linda Stelling

The city of Paynesville has spent the last four years cleaning up two contaminated wells and replacing them with two new wells, and now it wants to be sure it won't have to do this again.

The city is renewing its attempt to establish a wellhead protection plan to protect the city's ground-water supply from future contamination.

According to Ron Mergen, the city's public works director, the city's first attempt was started in 1996, but then the city discovered benzene contamination in two of its four wells during routine testing in November 1997. This put a halt to the wellhead work and put emphasis on correcting the situation and keeping an adequate supply of water.

The city concentrated on dealing with the contamination by finding the source of the pollutants, determining how large an area was affected, removing contaminated soil from the old gas station site, and monitoring further contamination with a series of wells.

Well #4, located behind city hall, still is not benzene free. The city pumps water from the well into its storm water system to keep the plume of contaminated water away from the other city wells, ensuring they won't become contaminated as well.

"We have had some clear sample tests," said Mergen, of Well #4.

Well #3, located by the city garage, has been put back into use, but it is pumping at only a third of its capacity. After treatment at the filtration plant, the water from Well #3 is safe to drink, said Mergen.

When the well crisis surfaced, the city had only two working wells to pump 600,000 gallons of water daily to 900 clients in the city. The two remaining wells (Well #5 and Well #6, located in the field east of Paynesville) had to pick up more of the burden for supplying Paynesville with water.

In the last couple years, the city has found locations and established two new wells. Well #7 is also east of town, while Well #8 is south of Highway 55 in the new development, Project 55. Well #8 was deliberately located away from the other wells in case more contamination occurs.

The city pumps water from its wells to the filtration plant, on the east edge of Paynesville. The plant removes bacteria, metals, and other contaminates from the water, and then adds chloride, fluoride, and chlorine to the water. The water is then pumped into the water mains that take it to homes and businesses.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) helped the city in cleaning up the contaminated wells and establishing the two new wells.

"I feel we have an adequate supply of fresh water for years to come," said Mergen.

However, the city no longer wants to take any chances. Three of its four wells are located within 500 yards of each other, and so all three could be affected by a single case of contamination.

The wellhead protection program should safeguard the water heading into the city wells, though the program could take several years to complete.

The first step is delineation of the sources of the water by the Minnesota Department of Health. The health department does this at no cost to the city. Hydrogeologists will check the sources of water that flows into the aquifer where the city draws water with its wells.

Once the delineation is completed, every potential contamination source in the community will be identified. First, a questionnaire will be sent to property owners and then a lot-by-lot search will be conducted. All abandoned wells and possible sources of contamination, such as underground gas tanks, will need to be identified.

"It will be a challenging task," Mergen said.

Wellhead protection committee members include Sue McGuire of Stearns County Environmental Services; Aaron Meyer of the Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District; Alan Kuseske of the North Fork Crow River Watershed District; Dave Neiman, a ground water technician; Rich Soule, hydrogeologist with the health department; Jay Thompson and Mary Stock, local science teachers; and John VanderBeek of Cenex.

The final wellhead protection plan will need to be approved by the health department. A public meeting will also be held to explain the plan to the community.

The last step will be to educate the public about how to protect the city's fresh water supply, including how to recycle hazardous waste items.

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