Heidi Zemach for SCN
Lowell Point residents attended an informative meeting October 2nd, with Loren Leman, of Michael L. Foster & Associates the engineer that city officials have been consulting with on problems at the Lowell Point Wastewater Treatment Facility. The city “lagoon” which is located in their community, but which, ironically, residents there can’t use, spent the summer stinking up that small, but highly lucrative Alaska beachfront tourist destination, nauseating them, and driving away customers.
The meeting at City Hall was in a much more pleasant location than a meeting held at the lagoon in September, and the city public works department provided an inviting array of sandwich wraps, fruits, dip and vegetables. With the exception of a few city council members and the city manager, most of the people who filled the seats at the meeting were Lowell Point residents.
Leman, who lives and works in Anchorage, quickly established his credentials as a true Sewardite, born and raised here, and as a professional engineer with decades of expertise dealing with aerated sewage lagoons in Alaska, including Seward’s and four others, along with other higher-level wastewater treatment systems. He displayed considerable knowledge of the lagoon’s history from its construction in 1980, to its renovation and one and only sludge removal in 1993, to the present day.
Despite the stench that occurred this spring and summer, the lagoon still meets the current conditions of its permit with the state, Lehman said. It has met its permit requirements with only two exceptions, one of those times being in 1993. The smell comes from the release of hydrogen sulfide (H2S), in airborne quantities not nearly great enough to harm resident’s health, he said. The unpleasant smell only underlines the real problems, however—a lack of regular maintenance of old, in some cases badly functioning equipment, and the need to remove at least 4,700 cubic yards of (dewatered) sludge, he said.
It was noticeable due to “peak organic loading” (too many people in town using toilets during the busy summer season) in addition to warmer temperatures, and an insufficient air supply to feed the microorganisms that feed on it and keep the lagoon working as well as it should. On average winters the lagoon receives about 600-800 pounds of organic loads per day, Lehman said. But in the summer months, when tourists and workers arrive, the lagoon can experience loads of 1500- 2000 pounds a day, two or three times as much.
Potential fixes he listed included waiting for cooler weather, removing the sludge, increasing the blower capacity (with additional or repaired blowers), installing bio-domes, baffles, cover, or adding mixers, or masking irritable odors when they occur with an industrial-type of chemical odor masker. A certain media placed in lagoon for organisms to grow on in the summer also might help the natural processes along, Lehman said.
But the city’s window of opportunity to improve the situation before winter hits, is fast closing.
Moreover there isn’t the money in the public work’s department’s wastewater fund to do much. Its long-deferred maintenance, repair and replacement fund, known as “MRRF” is only about $60,000 currently. That amount of money was created after the council increased residential sewage fees in the past two years. The city council is now considering raising those fees again over the next two years.
Meanwhile, disposing of one of the main problems, 4,700 cubic yards of dewatered sludge, would cost an estimate $1.2 million, and there’s currently nowhere acceptable to put it, city officials said. Replacing the 33-year old original Hoffman blowers, or revising the air intake would cost an estimated $200,000. Installing a new dissolved oxygen meter would cost $1,800; improving air flow monitoring to improve the department’s operational controls would cost $85,000; upgrading the air valves would cost $15,000. Installing baffles or bio-domes to cover the lagoon would cost $250,000, and installing a floating cover would cost upwards of $1.3 million.
Rather than draining the lagoon and removing all of the sludge at one time, Lowell Point resident Paul Paquette suggested that the city consider removing it in smaller portions, such as in amounts that the Kenai Peninsula Borough in Soldotna landfill might be willing to accept. There would only need to be a small staging area, he said. Lehman did not dismiss the idea, but added that workers would probably have to remove the heavier solids, such as grit, gravel and sand with bobcats and shovels, and would have to rent de-watering equipment. Unless they could drain the lagoon, they couldn’t check the underwater equipment, and would have to hire a trained diver to do that, Leman added. None were issues that those attending the meeting felt would be impossible.
Paquette also suggested that the public works department could more intensively monitor the lagoon’s operation during peak use times, and do what was needed under the circumstances. This could include adding the diesel backup generator to pump more air into the system, or employing an industrial mixer similar to an outboard motor, Lehman suggested.
Several residents, including W.C. Casey, the public works director, bemoaned the city and former public works administrator’s longstanding policy of deferring maintenance on such an important piece of city infrastructure, and for not building up a fund over time for the day repairs and sludge removal would be needed. Without an emergency, such as a public health outbreak, Seward can’t expect to receive high marks enabling it to qualify for a state or federal matching grant funding to help cover those major repair projects, Casey said.
“Money doesn’t grow on trees,” he said, begging his neighbors to understand the position that he, and the city find themselves in, and to give them the time to prioritize the more affordable fixes and begin to implement some of them as soon as possible. “We’re all a part of a community. We’re all in this together and if you give us time, we’re going to do the best we can to implement some of these things over the course of the winter,” Casey said.
Holding up some information cards that the city had recently mailed to its city-customers, Lehman suggested that all residents could help the lagoon’s functioning by not dumping fats, oils or any kind of grease down their sewers, and scrape their plates into the garbage instead. Also avoid using the sewer for anything else that would harm natural biological processes such as gas, paint, solvents and medicine. Large commercial loads and private septic systems should be emptied at times when fewer people are using the system, he said.
Lowell Point residents, who live outside of city limits and have their own private septic systems, noted they did not receive those cards.
The newer sewage lagoon at the Seward Municipal Industrial Center that serves some 500 Spring Creek Correctional Facility inmates and a few businesses is also overdue for sludge removal, and city administration has been considering that as part of the overall price and sludge removal and disposal dilemma.
Bed and Breakfast owner Lynda Paquette, of Lowell Point, said she gets “uncomfortable” when city administrators lump the price tag of dredging the Lowell Point lagoon with dredging the lagoon at SMIC.
“It’s all the same pocket of money, it all goes to that,” said City Manager Jim Hunt, referring to the city wastewater fund.
W.C. Casey estimated that the city might be subsidizing the state-owned prison by about $20-$30,000 a year with city-provided services, under its contract with the Department of Corrections. Perhaps the state should shoulder more of the burden, Carol Griswold said.