By Heidi Zemach for SCN -
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s air and water quality divisions have issued a joint Notice of Violation (NOV) to the City of Seward over violations of water and air State statutes and regulations at the Lowell Point Wastewater Treatment Facility, also known as the Seward Lagoon.
The passive wastewater lagoon, which takes human waste from city residents and businesses, had been stinking all summer and beyond after more than two decades since last being dredged, and lacking deferred maintenance. DEC has received 28 complaints (beginning September 4th) by 20 different Seward-area residents about the odor, concerned about their health, and saying it was hurting their beach-related businesses and quality of life.
The NOV cited 11 discharge monitoring test results from samples taken in June through October 2013 that showed either higher than allowable levels of Fecal Coliform, or lower than allowable levels of dissolved oxygen. Adequate dissolved oxygen levels are important because enough oxygen must be pumped into the water to sustain the microorganisms living in the lagoon that treat the waste material. One lab test taken in October also showed a decreased percentage of solids removed compared to the monthly average.
DEC said 18AAC 15.110 (Air Quality statue) was violated: “No person may permit any emission which is injurious to human health or welfare, animal or plant life, or property, or which would unreasonably interfere with the enjoyment or life or property.”
“Due to the number and duration of odor complaints received, as well as the City’s acknowledgement of the ongoing odor problems, DEC is alleging that the city is allowing emissions from the facility to unreasonably interfere with the neighbors’ life and property,” the NOV states.
DEC has ordered the city to immediately start reporting all lab-results that indicate non-compliance to the state agency hotline within 24 hours, and to provide the agency with a written report within five days. That is the requirement for all wastewater system permitees, but was not being followed by the City of Seward, said DEC’s Water Quality Program Manager Sharon Morgan.
DEC also gave the City until March 17th, 2014 to develop and implement a Corrective Action Plan, explaining the action it intends to take in order to comply with the conditions of its permit, and to reduce the objectionable odors associated with the facility. The plan also must spell out how the city will improve noncompliance with DO and fecal-coliform limits in the permit, and provide a timeline of implementation.
The plan then goes to DEC for review and approval. The city must follow up with monthly updates to the state, and notify it of any changes to the schedule or to the plan.
There are no penalties at this point. “We’re waiting for them to send us what they plan to do, then we’ll work with them closely to make sure what they’re doing is reasonable and will address the problems at the facility,” Morgan said.
“Our philosophy at DEC is an escalating response to non-compliance,” she added. “The city has been working with us, we want to resolve noncompliance at the lowest level possible, so a notice of violation is one of the first enforcement tools that we use.” If that approach doesn’t work, DEC may resort to an escalating series of civil and criminal actions, which can include fines, according to the NOV.
DEC had issued an advisory letter to the city on October 17th, 2013, alerting them of the same violation and asking for essentially the same thing as the NOV does. The City responded November 1st with a letter to DEC, (signed by Public Works Director W.C. Casey) that listed various projects, and their estimated costs, but that included no timeline or commitment for action, the NOV said.
The letter that the city sent to DEC talked about the lack of funding available for projects, and added that the city had not managed to locate a place or party willing to take the sludge material that would have to be dredged.
A few of the Seward City Council members, including the late Vanta Shafer, Marianna Keil, and Mayor Jean Bardarson, had recently publically expressed an interest in the city spending money from its General Fund to start paying for the dredging and needed deferred maintenance on the facility. The council also agreed with Lowell Point resident’s recommendations that the city hire an independent odor consultant for a second opinion on how to control odors temporarily, to supplement the advice in a report to be issued by the city’s longtime wastewater engineering firm M. L. Foster.
The city administration did not hire the expert that the residents group had recommended, but hired another consultant named Dr. Lee Reid. His report substantiates much of what Mr. Foster recommends, and adds some details, according to City Manager Jim Hunt. Plans are being finalized for addressing the issue temporarily, as the city continues to seek funding for permanent modifications and improvements at Lowell Point, Hunt said in the January 13 Manager’s Report.
Meanwhile, the group of Lowell Point residents recently wrote to the council and mayor reminding them that the odors are still strong to varying degrees throughout the Point, and said that it does not bode well as they anticipate the fast-approaching summer tourist season
“The system seems to barely handle the tiny upticks in use over the Thanksgiving weekend (which is when this last onslaught of smell really started again), and this past weekend with the Polar Bear attendees! We will be looking for some very specific answers to our concerns at the next council meeting. If that’s not possible, we ask that a work session be held before the end of the month of January, to address this situation. Time is quickly running out,” states the letter by B&B owner Lynda Paquette, on behalf of the group.
The next council meeting is tonight, Jan 27th, at 7:00 p.m.