By Heidi Zemach for SCN
The nauseating stench of the Seward wastewater lagoon at Lowell Point dominated Monday night’s September 9, 2013 City Council meeting. No, you couldn’t smell it at the meeting, but the Lowell Point residents who filled the council chambers did a good job of describing it, and the image wasn’t pretty.
With all the hot summer days gone, and colder days here to stay, the passive waste lagoon facility is still stinking as it has been for the past three months, and that is particularly alarming to area residents who cater to the burgeoning summer tourist market.
“Just last week my husband and I we stepped out on the porch in the evening, and we were in the middle of the forest, not on the beach, and the smell was so bad we were just shocked,” said longtime resident Teri Arnold, who lives with her husband Chip on Shady Lane, at the far south end of Lowell Point. “And two mornings ago, I got out for work at eight in the morning and there was that smell again. And then tonight in preparation for the council meeting, as I drove home from work about four in the afternoon in a downpour, I could hardly see through the windshield wipers. I rolled my windows down and it gagged me as I went past. I had to roll them back up, and then I couldn’t get the stink out of the car.”
Life in a small town is full of ups and downs, with one crisis after another, Arnold said. But she hoped the city would make available all the necessary resources to address the problem. Lowell Point folks are willing to help if asked, even though they aren’t residents of the city, she said.
“As manager of the campground, we have had the best summer since the campground opened five years ago,” said Sue Lang who lives at A Cottage on the Bay, on Beach Drive, and owns the Silver Derby Campground and RV Park that abuts the sewage lagoon on the north and east sides. “That said, it was very disheartening to be sold out for two or three nights in a row, especially on the beautiful weekends that we had this summer, only to receive messages and calls from the guests that they were leaving because of the odor, or (to see) new arrivals drive through the area and keep on going because of the stench.”
Lang asked the City of Seward to provide information to residents on how it is is managed and maintained, and how it will resolve the issue. She also felt the city should pay for the testing of abutting and adjacent private residential wells for contamination.
“Every single person who uses a toilet inside city limits needs to understand at this point that every flush is having a negative impact on the quality of life of the residents and visitors of Lowell Point,” said Lynda Paquette, a long-time, year-round resident. She owns Angel’s Rest on Resurrection Bay, a series of beachfront cabins and guesthouse retreat. Paquette is tired of gagging and having trouble breathing because of the smell, and having to close her windows.
After speaking with Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre about the issue recently, Paquette contacted DEC officials and her neighbors, and about 20 of them filed “nuisance odor reports” with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Air Quality Division. DEC now is actively investigating the situation, and speaking with city officials and the public works department about what can be done.
“The Lowell Point of today is not the rural, uninhabited place where that pond was originally placed,” Paquette said. Lots of local people live there, or enjoy visiting, and it has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state. “On any given summer night when you cross that bridge it’s wall to wall people,” she said.
Paquette asked the city to bring in a qualified consultant to assess the situation and recommend the best course of action. All summer long she’s been reporting on the stench to the city, but was told that it was due to the summer heat. But now it’s clear that wasn’t the case, she said.
“Stop the stench! The clock’s ticking on the 2014 season. We just have a month to fix this problem,” she said. ”Failure to act on this problem will result in a much larger problem down the road, and the monies to fix the problem now will be a pittance compared to what happens if we ignore this.”
Her husband Paul suggested that the lagoon be covered, as other facilities are, to minimize the smell. He said larger operators hooked up to the system could be required to have grinders, and other forms of sewage pre-treatment prior to allowing their wastewater to enter the lagoon. Experts recommend that passive wastewater lagoons be emptied every eight to 10 years, not every 20-plus years, he said, and suggested that the lagoon be dredged and composted by experts. If properly processed, he said, the sludge could be commercially viable in just five years.
The lagoon was last dredged in 1991, and an important factor may be the amount and age of the accumulated human waste. Public Works Director W.C. Casey explained in a SCN report called, “The Great Sewage Dilemma,” posted May 24, 2013, that the “bugs” or microorganisms found in old sludge don’t function as efficiently as bugs found in newer sludge at cleaning the waste before it can be released into Resurrection Bay.
The public works department has only been budgeted $490,000 to dredge and dispose of the city sludge, however, as well as the sludge in the lagoon that principally serves the prison and other businesses at SMIC. Their collective removal is likely to cost more than a million dollars, Casey told SCN, plus a great deal more to treat and monitor if stored on city land.
He told Lowell Point residents Monday that the problem they perceive is real, and that he suspects that what’s malfunctioning may be the 30-year old aerators, which pump oxygen through the lagoon to keep the “bugs” or microorganisms that feed on it alive and well. The “DO” or dissolved oxygen levels have tested low lately in regular tests performed at an independent laboratory which the public works department sends water samples to, he said. The blowers, which have served the city well for the past 30 years, may be difficult to find and purchase in order to replace the existing ones, he said. They may even have to be built from scratch. The city also informed DEC officials that the levels of algae also have tested lower than desired.
Gene McCabe, Environmental Program Manager with the DEC wastewater division dropped by the Seward lagoon on a cloudy Labor Day weekend for a visual site inspection after Paquette called him. He said he could smell the odor in his car from about 100 yards away. Closer up, he could smell an unpleasant odor that shouldn’t have been there. He checked the lagoon for any structural or mechanical changes that DEC was unaware of, but could not see any.
DEC’s air quality division, permit division, and water quality division all are now working together internally to investigate what may be causing the problem, he said. He stressed that they’re working also closely with the city to help determine what can be done, and said there are many steps to be taken before the state agency would consider fines or penalties.
“We’re internally discussing who should do what on this, we compiled and collected the complaints, we spoke with your public works director, and there’s an ongoing investigation,” added Jim Baumgartner, DEC Compliance Section Manager at the Air Permits program division Monday afternoon. “We understand that the city had a plan but that it’s too expensive. That’s not our issue. We do take it seriously, and will discuss internally what we will do if we do not get this taken care of.”
The city lagoon at Lowell Point is about five acres wide, and 23 feet deep. It accepts sewage from all city residents, and from the restrooms of small businesses, but does not accept industrial waste. The wastewater, containing 99.5 percent water, flows to the lagoon through pipes that run beneath the city streets and under Lowell Point Road by means of a number of city pump stations.