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Resident's quest ends after catching company red-handed

A simple report of foam on the Vermillion River turned into a case of illegal dumping about a year and a half after Hastings resident Ken Larson first called in a tip about possible pollution.

Since August of 2008, Larson has seen an unusual foam forming on the river three times where storm drains feed into it.

"A lot of people thought it was natural foam," Larson said.

But he wasn't so sure. The foam was about 18 inches thick where the drains fed into the river, he said, and it kept its form for about a mile and a half as it traveled downstream.

"That's not natural," he said.

Larson reported the foam to Trevor Thiel at the Dakota County Water Resources Department, but the department was unable to get a sample quickly enough before the rain and flow of the river dissipated the foam. Analysis of the sample showed car wash and normal road run-off, but nothing unusual, Larson said.

Thiel and Larson got other agencies involved. The city of Hastings set up a 24-hour hotline for people to call should they witness something similar to that which Larson saw, and the Dakota County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) was ready to take water samples at a moment's notice.

Then in September, Larson came across a Dynasty Cleaning Services employee dumping carpet cleaning wastewater from the company van into a storm-water manhole on Bahls Drive. It was about 4:30 p.m.

"I've never seen something so blatant," Larson said.

Larson is an avid fisherman and an environmentalist.

"There's some really tremendous fishing around here," he said.

So when he saw somebody endangering one of the city's pastimes by polluting the water, he couldn't let it go unanswered.

"I walked right up on him, and he denied it," Larson said.

Even though he denied dumping the water, the employee closed up the drain valve and left. Larson took a couple photos of the van as it drove away and called Thiel. Within half an hour they had a fresh sample and sent it off for analysis.

"We had all the bases covered at that point," Larson said.

Water tests showed high levels of surfactants, which are a main ingredient in soaps. There was also elevated amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen found in the sample.

"Soaps and chemicals of that nature could have toxic effects on fish and other biological life," Thiel said.

Since it was a state violation, Thiel and Larson took their information and test results to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

"It was kind of out of our hands at that point," Thiel said.

The MPCA sent Dynasty Cleaning Services the notice of violation in February. Besides listing the legal infractions, the notice also included a list of corrective actions the company was required to take: Stop the unpermitted activity, submit a plan to ensure wastewater won't be discharged again without a MPCA permit, and submit a report of how it would comply with the state statute that requires anyone to report the discharge of any substance that could cause pollution, even if it's accidental.

An MPCA letter dated March 12 thanked the company for completing all three requirements.

Thiel said Dynasty did have a wastewater disposal policy in place, and the incident was a case of a single employee deciding not to abide by the policy.

"From what I was told, the employee has been discharged," Thiel said.

Larson was the only person to report the foamy water, and there have been no reports since Larson witnessed the dumping, Thiel said.

"We're hoping this action sends a clear message," Thiel said.

Larson was happy to see the issue resolved, and credited the agencies for their collaborative work.

"I think it's a nice demonstration of a couple - two, three agencies working together," he said.

The response sets an precedent for other cities in the metro area for responding to such a case, Thiel said.

"Until you have to act on it, you don't know where the gaps are in your system," he said.