A lawsuit claims West Lakeland Township supervisors endorsed a plan to build a new water system not only for residents but also to assist a future casino.
The group Citizens Opposed to Municipal Water alleges in their lawsuit filed in Washington County that the water system — which was recommended by the state because of pollution concerns — was secretly endorsed by supervisors to assist a potential casino to be operated by the Prairie Island Indian Community. Prairie Island runs the Treasure Island Resort and Casino in Red Wing.
Plans for the water system – which have since been dropped – called for service for about 742 homes, or half of the township’s households. The water system — to cost $154 million — would be paid for through settlement money the township obtained from 3M to deal with perfluorochemicals found in drinking water in Washington County. While the facility was recommended by the state it drew opposition from some residents.
“It’s almost unbelievable how much the supervisors are doing wrong,” said Charles Devine, a former Afton mayor who has been retained as an expert witness by the group.
The three township supervisors — Dan Kyllo, Dave Schultz and Marian Appelt — either chose not to comment or did not respond to requests for comment. An attorney for the township, Nicholas O’Connell, did not respond to a phone message Thursday.
The township has filed a response to the lawsuit which denies all allegations, but does not explain how the decision was reached to endorse the water project.
Citizens Opposed to Municipal Water is now reaching out to residents by mailing pamphlets and holding public meetings. It sued the township in September and updated the lawsuit later in the fall.
LAWSUIT ASKS COURT TO REMOVE SUPERVISORS
The lawsuit asks the Washington County District Court to remove the supervisors from office, and to hold a referendum to increase the number of supervisors from three to five. It asks the court to order the township to pay unspecified costs and attorneys’ fees, and fines paid by individual supervisors.
The $154 million system was recommended by state agencies in 2020 as a way to clean up polluting chemicals originally manufactured by 3M. The township’s municipal system would have been paid for by the 2018 settlement of an environmental damage lawsuit, in which 3M paid $850 million to improve local water supplies. Of that, $700 million remains after legal expenses.
The money for the 4,200-population township was a larger amount than was allocated for its neighbors, including Woodbury’s $70 million, and Lake Elmo’s $66 million.
The township has no water system – all homes have private wells. The recommendation called for building a water tower, two municipal wells and 41 miles of water mains. It would have required rebuilding most of the roads, because the water mains are installed under the roads.
West Lakeland is an expensive place to build a water system because the homes are widely scattered on large lots. Compounding the problem is the fact that half the residents polled in a survey said they would not accept the connections to the city water system.
Minutes of meetings in February and March 2020 indicate supervisors believed the $154 million system would be easier for the township to manage than hundreds of in-home filters.
One re-cap of an earlier meeting states: “Benefits of a municipal water system were listed as the security and health benefits of safe water, a reliable water supply during power outages, no crisis repairs and there may be some consideration for home resale.”
INDIAN COMMUNITY BOUGHT LAND IN 2016
The possibility of a township casino was first raised in 2016, when the Indian Community bought 111 acres at Interstate 94 and Manning Avenue.
Tribal council president Shelley Buck said at the time that the purchase was for economic development, and did not rule out the possibility of a casino.
Buck said the community was trying to attain trust status for the land – which would be a first step towards building a casino. This requires action by the Congress, federal courts or the U.S. Department of the Interior, and allows Native Americans to be exempt from local regulations that limit gambling.
The Prairie Island Indian Community did not respond to a phone call seeking comment earlier this week.
LAWSUIT: SUPERVISORS MET TO DISCUSS CASINO, WATER SYSTEM
The lawsuit claims that in 2020, the township’s supervisors met several times to discuss the casino and the water system without properly notifying the public. The suit says that on Feb. 27, 2020, and on March 5, 2020, the supervisors held special meetings that violated “numerous open meeting laws.”
The lawsuit alleges there were 54 violations of laws to make data available and keep meetings open to the public. “Quite frankly, they are hiding information,” said Steve Norenberg, the group’s spokesman.
Township minutes for the March 5 meeting say that consultants “suggested that West Lakeland may want to contact the Prairie Island Indian Community to inquire their level of interest in a possible joint integrated water supply project.”
The minutes to meetings did not record conversations between the township and the Indian Community, said Devine. “My head was exploding. Why were they hiding that? There was a conscious decision to hide that.”
The $154 million water system was an official response to the traces of perfluorochemicals made by 3M for use in non-stick cookware, fire extinguisher and stain repellant. In 2004, traces of the chemicals were discovered in the drinking water of the township, as well as in Woodbury, Cottage Grove, Lake Elmo and Oakdale.
In high concentrations, the chemicals cause cancer, thyroid problems and birth defects in laboratory animals. In Washington County the chemicals, found in parts-per-trillion amounts, are presently filtered out by municipal filtering stations and in-home filters.