City of Seward, Council, Economics, Health, KPB

Lagoon work timing worries Lowell Point business owners

By Heidi Zemach for SCN –

Merrell Brothers, Inc., the lowest of three contractors to bid on the City of Seward project to drain, dredge and remove sludge from the two Seward lagoons, and conduct needed repairs, has told city officials it plans to begin working on the $3.9 million project in Seward next April. That information was disturbing to the three Lowell Point residents who attended a special two-hour council work session Monday, August 28th on the lagoon, and also to some sympathetic council members who had believed that the work would begin in September, and therefore would be completed well before the beginning of next year’s tourist season.

The work still would fall within the city’s designated window of time, and the project’s completion date still remains June 15th, 2015, said Assistant City Manager Ron Long. However, some Lowell Point business owners felt strongly that starting work that close to the opening of the 2015 year’s tourist season would be bad timing. Their seasonal employees arrive in Seward in early April, a few weeks early to train, they said, and some of the clients also begin booking cabins then, which is when the draining and dredging would be occurring, they said. The work is expected to be particularly smelly. They voiced concern that after 22 years of the city not removing bio solids from the lagoon, despite a 7-10 year recommended schedule for dredging, the project’s scheduled completion might be delayed for a variety of reasons: The work might uncover some particularly hazardous, yet-unidentified substances; there might be more sludge material in the lagoon than the city’s bid document estimates; the dredging process could rip the cell lining and could affect resident’s groundwater; or they could uncover other infrastructure maintenance that would have to be dealt with.

Public Works Director W.C. Casey, Engineer consultant Loren Leman, Assistant City Manager Ron Long address lagoon concerns. Heidi Zemach photo.
Public Works Director W.C. Casey, Engineer consultant Loren Leman, Assistant City Manager Ron Long address lagoon concerns. Heidi Zemach photo.

Loren Leman, an engineer associated with Michael Foster & Associates Inc., and the consultant who has advised the city public works department on the wastewater facility for 23 years, was on hand to address questions. He estimated that the lagoon would take three weeks to drain, and 2-3 weeks to dredge each of the two cells. The company would like to work around the clock, once they begin. Once the lagoon is drained and dredged, the city would have the opportunity to increase the lagoon’s capacity, without enlarging it, by merely installing another type of fixed surface to which the microorganisms could attach themselves.

In view of the increased tourism during the summer months which triples the organic loading that the lagoon receives, and high levels of fecal coliform counts that exceeded the waste-water lagoon’s permit last month, and pushed it to its limit, or exceeded it over the past few months, Leman suggested that the city might consider giving the lagoon that fairly inexpensive improvement. But he also insisted that the lagoon’s functioning also would improve with the cooler winter months, fewer users, and the dredging.

Small bubble aerators are a welcome sight at the City of Seward's passive wastewater lagoon lagoon. Heidi Zemach file photo
Small bubble aerators were a welcome sight at the City of Seward’s passive wastewater lagoon. Now, it’s unclear whether they’re working correctly. Heidi Zemach file photo

Some concerned council members asked if the project could begin earlier. The city could ask Merrell Brothers if the project’s schedule could be advanced, said Long, and they also could be appraised of the property owners’ other concerns. But the timing would be affected by the company’s ability to bring all of its workers and equipment to the site, and its ability to obtain the needed DEC permits. DEC bureaucracy is typically slow, he said. As the city’s bid document suggested, Merrell has been looking at a few alternative disposal sites for the sludge, less costly than the proposed disposal site at the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Central Peninsula Landfill, which would cost the contractor $45 per ton, plus transportation. On the other hand, the alternative disposal sites could pose more risk to those companies, and increase the time schedule of receiving DEC approval for its disposal.

Those in the audience, including Lowell Point cottage owners Lynda and Paul Paquette, and Dr. John French, had a variety of other concerns, primarily the potential loss of business for yet another tourist season, and also their immediate health. “The big elephant in the room,” Lynda Paquette said, was the attorney that the group hasn’t yet hired, a veiled threat of a potential lawsuit.

The city hired the equipment and services of White Environmental Consultants, a private company based in Anchorage for $1,300, to test the area for potentially harmful gasses. Upon council and resident’s requests, the city rented the equipment for an additional six days, thus holding 24-hour tests for a full week, rather than a single day. Those test results would be made public soon, administration promised. But due to heavy rain throughout much of that period, the equipment was placed indoors, adjacent to the lagoon, with the doors left open. It remains to be seen how effective the tests are.


None of the experts, Leman, or Public Works Director W.C. Casey, could say whether low levels of hydrogen sulfide, believed to cause negative health affects in certain people over a period of time, would register on those tests. But residents and visitors alike have been complaining of stinging watery eyes, sore throats, coughs, headaches, and other impairments that are also the known effects of inhaling low levels of hydrogen sulfide gas, over time.

Environmental toxicologist and water expert, Dr. John French, (who is running for a council seat) said no one knows exactly what is going on in the lagoon, anaerobically, or aerobically, and said it was important for the workers, and those in the area to know, and understand its dangers. He suggested core sampling be done. The city had already taken some samples of the sludge bio solids, and measured its depth at about three feet, or about 15% of the lagoon depth when settled, Leman said. But he seemed clearly uncertain about the chemistry of which French was speaking. He also disputed the public health hazards that Dr. French, and Lowell Point people are claiming, while acknowledging that they probably can indeed smell hydrogen sulfide in the air.

Leman also did not know that the new small bubble “blowers” that the city had begun using, as a method of temporarily better aerating the lagoon, were not working properly, as council members claimed. The city also has begun adding calcium nitrate to the lagoon waste water to help speed up the process of bio solid digestion, another method of dealing with the stench, according to Casey.

Paul Paquette, armed with a research publication from an Alaskan expert in wastewater systems, said the amount of calcium nitrate that the city is using is far too little to be effective, and he also disputed Leman’s estimate on the amount of sludge material in the lagoon.

When asked why the SMIC lagoon project would be done first, and whether Lowell Point lagoon couldn’t be dredged first instead, and thus avoid the SMIC waste water being trucked daily through town to be placed in the older lagoon, Leman said he had not yet seen the company’s proposal schedule, and did not know what order the work would take place. The idea was apparently discussed with the ADEC as one alternative for the disposal of waste water when the city learned that its application for a waiver to the  discharge permit had been denied. The other proposal was using a secondary filtration filter system.

Leman denied said he was “quite surprised” that the DEC did not allow waivers, except on an emergency basis, adding that he believed the state agency was acting in an over-zealous manner in denying the waivers due to its fear of the Environmental Protection Agency, a federal agency which gained oversight of the state agency three years ago.

Council member Dale Butts wondered aloud whether there might be other hazardous chemicals and gases than hydrogen sulfide in the lagoon, and in the air, possibly affecting people’s health conditions. Dr. French offered to research the topic in greater detail, and to help advise the council on how at-risk Lowell Point or Seward-area residents can keep themselves safe from the noxious odors. It might mean anything from staying indoors, or out of the area on days when the odor levels are high, he said, or wearing protective masks.

The winning bid still must be approved by the Seward City Council, who will award it on their September 8th agenda. They suggested the city should invite a Merrell Brothers representative to discuss the schedule and scope of work and answer questions at that time.



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