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Sioux City leaders: Natural gas project to make wastewater plant greenest in U.S.

SIOUX CITY -- For years, a potential resource at Sioux City's wastewater treatment plant has literally been going up in flames. 

Like many facilities around the country, the treatment plant uses a flare to burn the methane gas created as a byproduct during the anaerobic digestion process the city uses to break down raw sludge.

"It burns this fuel off so that it’s basically environmentally acceptable," city utilities director Mark Simms said. "That’s very common throughout the U.S."


Sioux City leaders are now hoping to harness the potential of this gas through a project that will allow it to be cleaned and re-purposed. A $9.1 million project set to break ground this August will install new equipment to capture, clean and compress the gas and turn it into renewable fuel to be sold on the national market for use in vehicles.

Justin Wan, Sioux City Journal 

Excess natural gas is being burnt at Sioux City Wastewater Treatment Plant in Sioux City. Rather than continue to burn it off, the city plans to capture, clean and compress the gas in order to sell it on the market as renewable fuel. 

It's a process the city anticipates will generate significant revenue, as well as reduce air emissions and improve odor control at the facility. Once the project is complete next summer, the revenue from the sale of the renewable fuel is expected to pay for itself in two to five years, Simms said. He said conservative estimates show it could generate $4 million per year for the city.

"The expected revenue may offset the need for some future rate increases," he said. 

The Sioux City Council gave the original go-ahead for the project in January 2017, allowing the city to enter the planning phase. Ground will be broken later this summer and, if all proceeds as scheduled, work will finish by June 2019.

At that time, Simms said, Sioux City will likely be the first wastewater treatment facility in the state -- and one of only five in the country -- to have such a program. 

"With this cutting-edge equipment and technology, as well as changes in some of our treatment processes, the city could have the greenest renewable natural gas project to date in the United States," he said.

The city has contracted with Bartlett and West, an engineering firm based in West Des Moines, for engineering and planning services for the project. 

Philip Gates, a senior project manager with the firm, said the technology the city will use has been established in European countries for around 20 years. 

"It's a proven technology but just hasn't been introduced here because we have cheaper fuel rates and electricity is cheaper here than what it is in Europe," he said. 

The city has purchased equipment including a chemical scrubber, moisture removal system and carbon dioxide removal system through a $2.25 million contract with DMT Clear Gas Solutions of Tualatin, Oregon. Gates said he believes the project will break ground this year. 

Justin Wan, Sioux City Journal 

A digester sits at the city's wastewater treatment plant. The city plans to install a system that will divert, clean up and compress a gas created as a byproduct during the anaerobic digestion process the city uses to break down raw sludge and turn it into biosolids.

The city currently produces approximately 300,000 cubic feet of methane gas per day and could potentially create more in the future, Simms said. Once the equipment is online, that is expected to create renewable fuel equal to 2,631 gallons of gasoline per day.

Through the cleaning, Gates said the city intends to also capture carbon dioxide -- one of the contaminants in the gas -- and reuse it in the wastewater treatment process as a chemical additive, which could potentially reduce the use of other chemicals. 

Gates said the city is looking at meeting the requirements of California's low-carbon fuel standard, which would allow it to sell the gas to markets in that state.

Since the nationwide market for national gas is volatile, the city is still considering whether it will ride with the ups or downs of the market or lock itself into a fixed long-term price, which would be reduced from the current rate, Gates said.

The wastewater treatment plant will be hiring two additional employees that will assist with the project. The city is also considering whether it could use some of the fuel it creates in its own vehicle fleet. 

This project is the latest move by the city to reduce the environmental impact of its wastewater treatment process and lessen the impact on ratepayers. 

In late 2016, the city entered a five-year land application agreement with BigAg Organic LLC, a Larchwood, Iowa, company, to allow biosolids produced during the treatment project to be used as fertilizer on approved public and private land. The city generates approximately 35,000 wet tons of the product per year. 

The biosolids had previously been deposited in the landfill by Gill Hauling Inc., the private contractor that hauls the city's garbage and recycling. The city is expected to save more than $2 million over the first five years through the switch. 

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Offering a helping hand
GALLAGHER: Briar Cliff graduate grows, helps other victims in wake of sexual assault

SIOUX CITY -- Marissa Messinger bounds into an interview on Thursday in the mood to sigh and high-five.

"I just got done with my last presentation," the Briar Cliff University senior says, referring to the last of her final exams.

The social work major, who will participate in the commencement ceremony at 10 a.m. Saturday in Briar Cliff's Newman Flanagan Center, describes using a dream board device for her presentation, which tackled a weighty topic for a senior in mid-May: "It was on bereavement and dying," she says.

The dream board illustrates the ways one's life can still move on, forging ahead with success, learning from and growing through the pain of tragedy, such as an accident, illness, or sexual assault.

Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal 

Marissa Messinger, a senior who graduates from Briar Cliff University on Saturday is shown on Thursday in the Chapel of Our Lady of Grace on campus at the Sioux City school. Messinger, a native of Waukee, Iowa, and a sexual assault survivor who has advocated for victims of sexual assault, is a social work major who hopes to work in Tanzania for Siouxland Tanzania Educational Medical Ministries.

"I love using dream boards and visionary boards," she says. "There's something so heartwarming when you see dreams and accomplishments in front of you."

Messinger knows. The 22-year-old has been there and done that, to trot out a well-worn phrase. She's still there and still doing that, and has ambitious plans to do more.

Marissa Messinger, of Waukee, Iowa, came to Briar Cliff four years ago intent on becoming a nurse and practicing her trade across the world, specifically in Africa where she felt she could do the most good.

That plan changed, however, due to a variety of events, most specifically, Messinger says, because she was raped.

"My freshman year of college I was raped on campus and lost all ability to look at an anatomy textbook and view my body as something that was supposed to work and to heal me," she says. "And I was only able to read textbooks and see how my body was failing me."

Messinger left nursing and entered social work. Through her healing, she worked with a representative with the Coalition Against Sexual Assault, who walked her through options she had as a survivor of sexual assault.

"I saw how she helped me and I knew at the end of that stage I could be that social worker for somebody else," Messinger says.

She became more. The BCU dance team member competed for the Miss Iowa crown and won the overall interview competition within the pageant, a result that propelled her to a Top 10 finish. Her platform: Raise awareness surrounding sexual assault.

"It's happening," she says, "and survivors need our support."

Messinger worked with Iowa's Coalition Against Sexual Assault and the Polk County Crisis & Advocacy Services organization to heighten awareness. She lobbied lawmakers in Des Moines to pass a bill that would allow survivors of sexual assault to obtain a civil no-contact order. As she read of its passage last spring, Messinger stood on the futon in her dorm room then dropped to her knees, crying tears of pain and joy in unison.

"Until this bill, in Iowa, you could only get a criminal no-contact order and, in order to get one, there had to be an arrest," she explains. "Sexual assault is one of the most under-arrested and under-reported crimes. Many times, there's not even a report."

With the new bill, a survivor of domestic violence can walk into a courthouse and ask for a civil no-contact order.

"I went to Des Moines (to lobby) and said that if it wasn't for my campus who protected me and gave me a no-contact order, I would have been left alone," she says. "My state would have left me down."

Messinger says she couldn't let others down. So, she pressed, and often offered a shoulder for others to cry, or lean on. She answered her door in the dorm when young men and women simply wanted to talk. She remembered nights she pulled a blanket tightly around her body and curled into a ball on the floor clutching her Bible, unable to move.

She thought about leaving, too, as painful memories and the sight of her perpetrator shook her. God had other plans, she says, even as she applied for admission to universities in Louisiana and across Europe.

"I wanted to run," she says. "It was not what I wanted and then one day I got my acceptance letter to study abroad, in Sicily. I said, 'God, you're funny. I see what you're doing. You're telling me I'm supposed to stay here, but that you'll let me get away for a semester.'"

She observed the first anniversary of her assault overseas, a detail she believes God had in mind to protect her and keep her on a path of healing and helping.

"When I was trying to flee, God said I'll let you get away for a semester when you're going to relive that traumatic experience on the first anniversary date," she says. "But, this (at BCU) is where you belong."

Messinger returned and continued her work as an advocate. The statehouse trips to Des Moines would follow, as would the national "#MeToo" movement, a watershed moment for victims of sexual assault, and society. Messinger embraced progress while pushing for added understanding, compassion and justice.

"The rug of taboo was pulled away and we said we're going to talk about it and we did," she says. "We can only go up from here."

Messinger will go up to grab her diploma on Saturday, sporting a mortar board she decorated with a map of Africa, a rhinestone in the spot for Tanzania, where Messinger will spend the next seven months completing her education while serving Siouxland Tanzania Educational Medical Ministries. She might say this is part of her dream board, as she envisions the chance to one day work full-time in Tanzania.

In addition to thanking her parents, Bob and Mary Messinger, the Briar Cliff social work major also jotted three words on the sides of her graduation cap. They appear neatly and with purpose: "Travel, Change, Advocate," summing up what this Charger has done and how she strives to do even more.

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Four Nebraska tribes now suing drug companies over opioid epidemic

OMAHA -- All four Nebraska Indian Nations now have sued drug manufacturers and distributors of opioid painkillers, seeking repayment as sovereign governments for financial losses in connection with the national epidemic.

The Winnebago Tribe, Omaha Tribe and Santee Sioux Nation of Nebraska filed lawsuits Tuesday.

The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska and Knox County sued April 25.

"The four Nebraska Tribal Chairmen and their Councils collaborated to assure that their efforts together strengthen and emphasize the importance of relief for their tribal governments and to underscore the impact on their members," said their attorney, David Domina of Omaha.

The Nebraska lawsuits, filed in U.S. District Court in Omaha, are the latest across the country filed over the opioid crisis. But, where most are against about a dozen companies, these target 25, alleging each used false, deceptive or unfair marketing practices that helped lead to the problem.

They allege Walgreens, CVS, McKesson Corp., Purdue Pharma Inc. and others misled medical professionals and misrepresented the dangers and addictive risks of their drugs while 183,000 people died of overdoses between 1999 and 2015. Domina described it as the worst public health epidemic in U.S. history.

Bruce Miller / Anna Webber  

A Steve Martin we haven’t seen enough of and a Martin Short whose variety show ended too soon joined forces at the Orpheum Theatre Saturday night and wowed like few in the business.


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Sioux City school district, teachers union strike deal on 0.55 percent pay raise

SIOUX CITY -- Avoiding binding arbitration, the Sioux City School District and unionized teachers have struck a tentative deal on a three-year contract that would give the instructors a 0.55 percent pay raise next year, the smallest in at least two decades, a union leader said Thursday.

 “The financial package (this year) is the lowest I could find record of, and substantially the lowest,” said Brenda Zahner, director of the Siouxland UniServ group of the Iowa State Education Association.

Under the deal, middle and high school teachers also no longer will receive $4,800 in annual pay for extra classroom duties, starting with the 2018-19 academic year.

Sioux City Education Association members on Wednesday began voting on whether to ratify the proposed contract. They have until 9 a.m. Monday to cast ballots. The seven-member school board is scheduled to vote on the agreement at its meeting Monday night.


District Spokeswoman Mandie Mayo said teachers are valued in the district.

"This tentative agreement provides an opportunity to retain all teachers while still offering a pay increase. The board and SCEA worked together amicably to form this common agreement, which is written up for a three-year timeframe," Mayo said.

Since early February, the two sides had been in talks on a wage and benefit package covering more than 1,000 K-12 teachers. It's the first such negotiations since the passage of a 2017 state law that limited the mandatory topics of negotiation with most public workers.

Majority Republicans approved a major overhaul of the state's 40-year-old collective bargaining law, which now restricts mandatory items of negotiation to base salaries for non-public safety employees.

In its opening proposal 12 weeks ago, the SCEA called for raising annual teacher base salaries for 2018-19 by 3.5 percent, to $35,564. The district countered with an opening offer of a flat $100 increase in base salary. At odds over the wage issue, district and union representatives recently took part in mediation sessions.

The proposed deal calls for the base salary to rise by $196 and longevity pay to increase by $300, for a "0.55 total package settlement," Zahner said in a summary of the agreement emailed to teachers. The Journal obtained a copy of the email Thursday and Zahner confirmed the details.

The change in the base pay would impact individual teachers in varying ways, depending on their current salary, years of experience and other factors.

The proposed contract also cuts $4,792 in annual supplemental pay for nearly 300 middle and high school teachers. The extra pay started three decades ago and was intended to compensate teachers for instruction time in an extra period beyond their normal day.

A number of teachers and their supporters voiced opposition to the controversial plan at a series of school board meetings.

Superintendent Paul Gausman pointed out the district faces tight finances, with the state's supplemental aid to public school districts rising by only 1 percent for the next academic year. Shedding the supplemental pay would close all but around $200,000 of a projected $1.61 million shortfall, he said.

Gausman had previously said the district made a substantial concession by keeping teachers on the current master salary schedule, in which they receive so-called lane and step additions to pay, depending upon years taught and advanced colleges degrees. Because the new collective bargaining law does not require it, many other school districts no longer recognize the prior longstanding salary schedules, he said.

"While we know funding is tight at the state level, we also know that the district has done more with less in the past." Zahner told The Journal last week.

She noted local teacher unions in some of the other larger Iowa school districts received pay raises between 2 and 2.5 percent.

The new collective bargaining law also removed health care insurance and other benefits from the mandatory topics of negotiation. Zahner noted there have been some changes to health insurance benefits for Sioux City teachers, which include increases in co-payments and deductibles.

"The bottom line is teachers will be paying more for less coverage," she said.

While the new contract would extend for three years through 2021, the district accepted a union proposal to allow wages to be re-negotiated each year.

The school district had earlier reached a new contract with the 400-member Sioux City Educational Support Personnel Association, which represents paraprofessional associates, secretaries and bus assistants. Details of that agreement were not immediately available Thursday.

The district also this month started negotiating with two smaller groups of unionized employees -- the Operations & Maintenance Employees International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 234 and Sioux City Community School District Bus Drivers Association. 

The district employs a combined 1,900 teachers and staff.