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Maintenance gives way to prayers at Breckenridge's ancient water plant

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Jim Bogenreif, plant supervisor, looks at equipment in the room where chemicals are added to water. A cautionary sign hangs on the old and fragile motor that runs a mixer in the water treatment plant Thursday, May 18, 2017, in Breckenridge. Dave Wallis / The Forum2 / 7
A pair of work gloves appear to be folded in prayer on top of a meter in the water treatment plant Thursday, May 18, 2017, in Breckenridge. Dave Wallis / The Forum3 / 7
A caution sign is taped to a plastic bucket on an open grate in the old water treatment plant Thursday, May 18, 2017, in Breckenridge. Dave Wallis / The Forum4 / 7
A valve control table is no longer in use at the the water treatment plant Thursday, May 18, 2017, in Breckenridge. The manufacturer has asked to display the equipment in its company museum. Dave Wallis / The Forum5 / 7
Neil Crocker, director of public service, stands near a caution sign taped to a plastic bucket on an open grate in the old water treatment plant Thursday, May 18, 2017, in Breckenridge. Dave Wallis / The Forum6 / 7
Rust spots leave trails on the outside of the steel tank inside the water treatment plant Thursday, May 18, 2017, in Breckenridge. Contractors are hesitant to do additional repairs on it because the steel is getting too thin. Dave Wallis / The Forum7 / 7

BRECKENRIDGE, MINN.—Jim Bogenreif starts work at the city water treatment plant here the same way every day, with a prayer.

After saying his prayer, Bogenreif then checks the aging pipes at the plant where he's worked for 38 years, the last 18 of them as superintendent. Some of the equipment there is so old the original manufacturer would like to have it for their company museum.

"All I'm listening for is water and hoping that nothing is leaking," Bogenreif said.

Bogenreif and Neil Crocker, Breckenridge's public service director, are keeping a close eye on both the antiquated equipment in the nearly 90-year-old plant and a state bonding bill under consideration in the Minnesota Legislature.

The city is counting on $1 million as part of that bonding bill and a $4 million state public facilities grant to cover a sizeable portion of a new water plant to serve the city's 3,300 residents.

A firm is closing in on final design plans for the building, and the city hopes to start advertising for construction bids in June.

With some funding still in question, Crocker and Bogenreif are nervous. And even if construction could begin immediately, the old plant will have to keep chugging along until the new one is done — two years, at a minimum.

Meanwhile, a large tank in the main area of the plant has rusted from outside in, allowing water to seep through in some spots. Bogenreif has had contractors sandblast and repaint the tank several times, but they've told him that's no longer an option because the metal is worn too thin.

"You're going to have a big blowout here,'" Bogenreif said he was told, "so I'm keeping my fingers crossed on this one."

Crocker said it's not a water quality issue but a matter of mechanical integrity.

"It's about time," he said. "These plants have a life expectancy, and they can't run forever."

Injury hazards, obsolete machines

Bogenreif has posted signs in several areas of the plant, warning others about trip hazards like concrete dividers and open metal grates.

"There's nothing in OSHA compliance here," Crocker said, referring to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that regulates workplace safety.

Some safety improvements have been made, but in other cases, the warning signs have to suffice.The plant uses a freight elevator built in 1943 to haul water treatment chemicals up to the second floor. A piece of equipment that drives a chemical mixer is long obsolete.

"I can't get parts for this," Bogenreif said. "If this goes down, I'm kind of in a bad spot."

The same was true for a valve control panel taken out of commission a few years ago.

When the city called the manufacturer about fixing the panel, company officials were astonished.

"They asked to have it back to put it in their corporate museum," Crocker said.

The two operating filters in the plant date back to the 1930s and late 1940s. Crocker said they're fortunate to have a good water source in aquifers north of town, otherwise the plant might not be able to produce suitable water.

People in Breckenridge use upwards of 300,000 gallons of water daily. The community goes through at least double that in the summer due to agricultural use.

City doesn't need a 'Cadillac'

The new Breckenridge plant is planned to be built about a half mile north of the existing site, on the east side of Highway 75.

A previous design firm came up with a "Cadillac" plan in the $12 million to 14 million range. Crocker said the final plant cost has to be much less than that.

"A Ford Taurus or Ford Fusion would be just fine," he said.

Although water rate adjustments could happen down the line, Crocker doesn't anticipate increases with the new plant because the city began raising rates three years ago, in anticipation.

After the city determines the exact share of money coming from the state, it will bond for the difference between that and the total cost of the new plant.

Not getting the bonding bill funds could put the project in jeopardy, Crocker said, but they will work hard to make it happen, regardless.

"Continuing to run this plant for the next decade is not an option," he said.

Robin Huebner

Robin Huebner is also a 5 p.m. news anchor on WDAY-TV.

(701) 235-7311
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