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East Mills working with DNR on lagoon issue

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Superintendent says wastewater pond poses no health concerns for students, staff

By Joel Stevens, Associate Editor

East Mills School District officials say a lagoon located on the elementary school campus near Hastings poses no health concerns for students or staff but the district will comply with an Iowa Department of Natural Resources request to more closely monitor water discharge levels.

East Mills Superintendent Paul Croghan addressed the lagoon issue at the district’s regular monthly board meeting in the high school-middle school media center last Monday. Possible concerns with the lagoon, which serves as a waste water sewage pond for the school and is located on the east end of the campus along Highway 34, came to light last month but the district was aware of potential issues with the lagoon’s lowered discharge levels all the way back to November of 2012. An inspection report conducted by the DNR at that time showed lower than anticipated water levels present in the 67,000-cubic foot pond and that seepage could be a concern. The district was advised at the time to provide the DNR with water usage totals and lagoon levels.

The district never provided that information.

The DNR only became aware of the discrepancy to provide the data it had requested nearly two years prior when the district informed the state regulatory agency the elementary school’s occupancy level would be increasing as part of a district re-structuring of school buildings. The district announced in July it would be consolidating all elementary students at the former Nishna Valley campus and closing Chantry Elementary in Malvern, meaning an increase of nearly 50 students in the Hastings building.

When the DNR was informed of the occupancy increase at the school, it was further discovered no operational permits existed for the 50-year old lagoon, and that prior to 2012 the lagoon had not been inspected by the state agency since 2002.

A July 11, 2014 letter from the DNR notified the district they had not complied with its prior request for data on the lagoon’s water levels and that an engineer’s evaluation of the existing clay liner to ensure it can accommodate increased wastewater from the additional students and staff would have to be conducted before the DNR could sign off on it.

Croghan said the issue won’t impact students. East Mills opened classes last Thursday.

“The next step is we’re coordinating with the DNR to come out and visit and go from there,” Croghan said. The meeting with DNR will include a site visit and information gathering on both sides. Croghan hopes to have that meeting set later this month. He declined to speculate what requests the DNR might make of the district in further management of the lagoon.

“I have no idea what will be required of us at this time. This really all started because the DNR did not have a permit on file,” Croghan said. “With a permit, the follow up and regulation and the stipulations set fourth by the DNR would have been followed.”

Pete Franks, an architect and current East Mills school board member, was the board president at the time of the DNR’s initial contact in 2012. In a more than 20 minute commentary to open Monday’s board meeting, Franks said he had been aware of the lagoon issue but was under the impression the pertinent information was provided to the DNR and that the matter was subsequently resolved. It wasn’t until the DNR broached the issue once again in July that he was made aware the matter was still pending.

Franks said this wasn’t a case of himself or the board dodging an issue. The district was dealing with financial problems in the 2012 budget and the lagoon matter simply slipped through the cracks with a change in district administrators and bureaucratic shuffling. Curtis Barclay stepped down as superintendent in 2013 and was replaced by Croghan.

Croghan, who said in Monday’s meeting he was unaware of a potential lagoon issues until this summer, believes miscommunication between the district and the DNR played a role in the current questions concerning the lagoon.

“I think it came down to a communication breakdown between the district and the DNR, who was doing what was needed and internal communication breakdown on understanding that,” Croghan said. “There was a lot of waiting on the other to respond and no one was responding. I think a lot of this can be resolved with better communication on both sides.”

The lagoon issue comes at a crucial time for the district. District voters will head to voting booths next month to decide whether to allow the district to pursue a Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL). With a 50-percent approval of voters, the $1.34 levy for 10 years will raise approximately $395,000 annually or $3.95 million over the 10 years. With a revenue bond based on that levy, the district could raise $2.9 million to assist in technology and major repairs to the district.

Deanne Mulholland, a former school board member who was present at board meeting, said the lagoon issue was “troubling,” especially in light of September’s vote.

“It’s not for me to judge if the DNR is overreacting,” she said. “It’s just critical all board members know what is going on and communicate with each other. This could be a good learning experience for the district.”

Croghan agreed.

“We’ll get to the bottom of where we need to go,” he said. “And we’ll communicate where we need to communicate and let the board know where we’re headed and when we know things. We’ll make sure things get done right.”