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Algae creeping over lake won't likely dissipate

LAKE PARK, Minn.

Blue-green algae

LAKE PARK, Minn. - The first sign of trouble came when neighbors noticed a pungent odor wafting from Sand Lake near here and saw a thick scum spreading like a noxious blanket across the water.

Staff from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency went to the recreational lake, which straddles Clay and Becker counties, and dipped sample bottles, reporting later that the layer of scum had the consistency of Latex paint.

The lab results brought bad news: a bloom of toxic blue-green algae, harmful to humans, pets and livestock, the result of phosphorous contamination, a nutrient from animal waste that promotes algae growth.

More bad news: The contamination problem in Sand Lake, discovered in July, likely will persist, requiring ongoing monitoring from residents and officials, and threatening what had been known by locals as a walleye fishing spot.

Pollution control investigators found phosphorous levels in the lake three times greater than any found since monitoring there began in 1999, indicating a "highly degraded condition" of lake water quality, including low oxygen levels.

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"These results indicate that Sand Lake has the potential to experience a fish kill due to suffocation," the MPCA follow-up report determined.

The deterioration of Sand Lake follows three decades of concerns over high concentrations of phosphorus within Axberg Lake, a smaller body of water located less than a mile upstream in hilly country dotted with ponds and wetlands.

The source of the phosphorous: tons of chicken manure dumped into a bay of Axberg Lake, isolated by an earthen dike, from the mid-1960s to the early or mid-1970s.

The MPCA declared the site, once the sewage lagoon for up to 200,000 chickens, a "potential pollution hazard" in 1975, and staff have expressed worries for years about the risk of contamination spreading downstream to small recreational lakes.

Official concerns about the spread of contamination peaked in the fall of 1997, a time of high precipitation, when the MPCA declared the manure bay an "imminent and substantial" risk of pollution spilling downstream.

Using its emergency powers, the agency installed a culvert to allow some water to flow past the contaminated bay of Axberg Lake, a partial solution intended only as a first step.

But talks aimed at completely isolating the polluted bay collapsed a decade ago, and languished until the contamination of Sand Lake was discovered in early July.

Now, months later, talks with the poultry farm's owners, the Baer family, represented by Hawley, Minn., lawyer Zenas Baer, still haven't produced a final agreement or solution.

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The sticking point, then and now: the Baers' offer to pay to fully contain the phosphorus-laden bay of Axberg Lake is contingent on a waiver of future liability from the state.

Zenas Baer said his brothers are willing to pay to contain Axberg Lake even though their late father, Allen Baer, was responsible for dumping the chicken manure, which records indicate occurred from the mid-1960s to the early or mid-1970s.

The Baer family operates extensive poultry and hog feedlots in Clay County. County commissioners recently rejected a proposed Baer hog barn in Skree Township, citing concerns over groundwater contamination. The decision prompted the members of the Baer family to file a lawsuit in state court appealing the decision.

Animosity over the manure dumping at Axberg Lake, something done in a less environmentally conscious era, has dogged the family, Zenas Baer said.

"Somehow the sins of the father are going to be visited on the sons," he said.

Meanwhile, neighbors around Sand Lake, an area increasingly drawing residential development, are frustrated by what they regard as decades of inaction by the MPCA, despite numerous complaints and pleas for action.

"This project has been going on since 1975," neighbor Fred Haring, who has been an outspoken critic of the agency, said recently. "We do not think highly of the MPCA."

Gerald and Kay Syvrud of rural Hawley believe the MPCA should have acted more aggressively to prevent phosphorus in Axberg Lake from spreading downstream.

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"Sand Lake is the chickens coming home to roost, literally, in the blue-green algae blooming," Kay Syvrud said.

But Jim Ziegler, who heads the MPCA office in Detroit Lakes, said that it is simplistic and unfair to single out the Baers' contamination of Axberg Lake as the culprit for the algae bloom on Sand Lake.

Also, he said the agency lacks "conclusive evidence" to determine that pollution from Axberg Lake is at least partly to blame for the contamination of downstream Sand Lake.

"The water quality complaint is really bigger than just working with the Baers," he said.

Fertilizer runoff from surrounding farm fields and the decay of dead trees and other organic matter in Sand Lake also contribute phosphorus, he said.

But an MPCA water quality specialist repeatedly identified Axberg Lake as a significant threat to downstream bodies of water, and prodded for the agency to follow through with enforcement action if necessary.

Because phosphorus is an element, it lingers as a nutrient in the environment, bonding with soil unless washed away or removed.

The MPCA, lake specialist Bruce Paakh wrote fellow officials in 1998, has been "very fair and patient to work with on this case." The agency had closed its enforcement case against the Baers during a time when they were applying for an expansion, he wrote.

"We have taken heat from complainants that should have been shouldered by the Baers," Paakh's memo added. "We have delayed using enforcement action to get results on this point. The point is that it is time for them to belly up to the bar and get to business."

Zenas Baer said his father received a permit decades ago from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build the dike used to turn the northwest bay of Axberg Lake into a sewage lagoon.

But he said he cannot find the document and believes his late father must have sent it to someone.

Although unable to produce a copy of the permit - which the Corps office in St. Paul also could not locate - Baer said his family should not be responsible for dumping he said was not prohibited at the time, around 1965.

Still, despite that assertion, in the interest of resolving the issue, the Baers have offered once again to finish the containment project, at a ballpark estimate of $40,000 to $50,000, Zenas Baer said.

"My clients have wanted to get it done," he added. "They were prepared to do it in '97 and pay for all the costs associated with it in '97.

"It was never followed through. It was only in the last year that this issue came back on the radar screen," he said.

In return for paying to contain the contamination, the Baer brothers believe it is reasonable to be released from future liability.

"If we pay for it and isolate this bay, we want some closure for it," Baer said. The contamination happened decades ago, when they were teenagers.

"Why should they continue to pay and pay and pay without closure?"

The MPCA continues to study the Baers' resurrected containment plan. "The agency is reviewing what liabilities, if any, are or would be attached to the existing holding pond," agency spokesman Daniel Olson said.

The plan would cut the bay off from upstream water flow, eliminating the flow of water downstream. Although staff once recommended removing phosphorus sediment, Ziegler said that would greatly increase the project's cost and cause "a significant amount of mixing and potential release to downstream waters."

The MPCA's report of the blue-green algae bloom this summer noted the agency has a long history of investigating problems in the Sand Lake watershed.

"The MPCA investigated the algal bloom as part of an ongoing effort to understand and improve the water quality of Sand Lake and the chain of lakes associated with it," the report said.

"Based on the above referenced study and the results of this investigation the MPCA advises the public to avoid contact with severe nuisance blooms such as what was present on July 3, 2007," the report said.

Despite the public warning in the memo, warning signs were not posted in public access areas along the lake shore, neighbors said.

On Aug. 9, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources granted the Baers renewed permits authorizing their proposed containment work, including a longer diversion culvert.

Zenas Baer had requested the permits in a letter dated July 2, when neighbors began complaining about the algae scum and odors on Sand Lake.

The permit expires in 2012, but Baer said he had hoped work could be done before the ground freezes this winter. Work won't begin, he said, unless MPCA agrees to the proposal.

"Every attempt should be made to complete this project within the timeframe authorized under this permit extension," Bob Merritt, a DNR hydrologist wrote.

Although he has not studied the Sand Lake algae bloom, Merritt said it's likely it is at least partly caused by the spread of phosphorus downstream from Axberg Lake. Preventing the spread of nutrients, he said, was the basis of granting the permits for the containment project.

Meanwhile, the MPCA's report on the condition of Sand Lake calls for follow-up monitoring, and advises residents to watch for dead fish in the event of a major "die off" from blue-green algae.

Winter, when the shallow lake is covered with snow and ice and oxygen levels drop, Merritt said, is a time of high risk for a fish kill.

First of two parts

- Monday: Sides try to reach agreement on solution.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

Algae creeping over lake won't likely dissipate Patrick Springer 20071202

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