Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Ironwood looks at water system proposal


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Ironwood — The city of Ironwood took the next step toward addressing manganese and water quality issues Monday by approving the go-ahead for grant applications for a proposed $9.7 million water treatment plant.

The unanimous decision followed a public hearing where engineers who have studied Ironwood’s water system presented a preliminary engineering report that recommended a concrete, gravity filtered water treatment plant.

“I recognize that this is a very expensive project but I think there are some considerations that are really important included,” said Mayor Annette Burchell. “The construction of a safer system and bringing the chlorine room up to standards will provide better water.”

Chris Larson, a project manager with SEH, the engineering firm doing the water portion of the proposed water treatment plant project, presented the preliminary engineering report to the board at the hearing. The initial report serves as a base for the funding application as the first of several steps, he said.

The estimated cost for the concrete gravity water treatment plant is $9.7 million, Larson said in his report. The second option of a $10.5 million steel water treatment plant has the benefit of a longer expected life cycle but the concrete plant presents more operational advantages for Ironwood and is the recommended alternative, he said.

“It’s still a choice, but if the city elects to pursue a project to remove manganese from the drinking water and replace some old infrastructure; the recommended alternative will be a concrete, gravity filtered water treatment plant,” Larson said.

Jeff Sjoquist, of Coleman Engineering Company, said the hearing is a requirement of the Drinking Water Revolving Fund project grant application with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). The city qualifies as an economically disadvantaged community that will support the grant process.

A second report and grant application will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Department of Agriculture’s office of Rural Development, he said. 

The commission 5-0 approved a resolution adopting a final project plan for water system improvements and designating an authorized project representative for a state of Michigan Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund.

Current estimates show that with 100% grant funding the project would not require an increase in water rates, he said. With zero grant funding then rates could increase by $8 per month.

Commissioner Joseph Cayer said he was impressed with the project but would not support it if it meant that rates would increase by $8.

“Water rates are so expensive as it is already,” Cayer said.

Commission Jim Mildren said putting the horse before the cart means seeking grant funding before approving any project. There are many factors that go into project planning and grant applications.

“At the high end they were talking about an increase of $8 a month but at the low end you’re not sure because everything figures into that,” Mildren said. “But in the end we improve a 100 year old system and you get good water for everyone.”

The construction of a new system with no disruption to current service is very important, he said. 

In his report, Larson said the city’s first three wells were drilled around 1920. There were three more wells drilled in 1940 when there was mine contamination in the Spring Creek wells. 

The six wells pump to a clear well that is connected to a pumping station that was also constructed in 1920. Chlorine is added to prevent bacteria growth at the pumping station before the outgoing water enters the city’s distribution system.

“The biggest single driver for some sort of project is the fact that you have manganese in your drinking water,” Larson said. 

Five of the six wells are producing water samples with manganese levels above the 300 parts per million safety levels of the Environmental Protection Agency. The current system requires constant blending of water from clean wells to dilute the manganese levels to less than 300 PPM.

The second driver for the project is the century old pump station. The pumps have been replaced and maintained but much of the piping is original or was installed when the clear well was constructed in 1940.

A chlorine treatment addition was partitioned in the existing building. It doesn’t meet contemporary safety standards for workers. 

With all the wells pumping to the clear well it cannot be taken out of service and has been working continuously for 80 years. Cleaning requires divers with special equipment to avoid stopping service. 

The gravity concrete water treatment plant option removes manganese using chemical additives that turn manganese to a filterable solid that is captured in a sand filter. The steel gravity filter involves basically the same process with some minor differences.

Other options considered but proven not to be beneficial to Ironwood included pressure filter systems and searching for new wells.

“The city has hired geologists six times since 1920 to search for new well fields,” Larson said. “The reality is that they just don’t exist.”

Connecting to the Gogebic Range Water Authority was ruled out based on Ironwood’s daily demand of 1.2 million gallons of water per day. The water authority distributes about 125,000 gallons per day from its Wakefield wells.

Following an executive session, the commission 5-0 approved a collective bargaining agreement with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The two-year agreement includes a 2% salary adjustment each year, and affects 17 city employees in the public works department and clerical staff.

“I think it’s a good agreement on both sides,” said Scott Erickson, city manager. “I think it’s solid and both parties came together.”

Two other negotiated items affect new hires, according to Erickson. The starting pay for new hires is now increased to the six-month step level, and the first-year pay rate was changed to match the second-year.

New hires are also now eligible for city holiday pay during their first six months.

“I think it’s something that’s good for the employees and also good from an administration standpoint on moving forward and a fair representation of the work they do,” Erickson said. “They are out there plowing the roads in the wintertime when we’re all sleeping and they’re out there fixing sewer breaks when the rest of us are at home on weekends.”

In other business, the commission approved:

—Awarding a $13,500 low bid for a 2020 Towmaster T-30 Trailer to haul an excavator to Pete’s Trailer Sales. A USDA Disaster Relief Grant is funding 55%.

—A resolution supporting racial justice.

—A resolution supporting the proclamation declaring June 2020 as LGBTQ+ Pride Month in Ironwood, Michigan.

—A resolution amending the General Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2019-20.

—A resolution transferring delinquent invoices for ordinance violations to the July 2020 City Tax Roll.