Business, City of Seward, Council, Health, Politics

Sewage lagoon blamed for health concerns

Lowell Point residents and others fill the City Council Chambers for Monday night's meeting. Heidi Zemach photo.
Lowell Point residents and others fill the City Council Chambers for Monday night’s meeting. Heidi Zemach photo.

Ten area residents and business owners of the Lowell Point area, including a few downwind or upwind from the city’s main aerated, passive sewage lagoon, described their symptoms at Monday night’s regular city council meeting: headaches; stinging, swollen, watery eyes; difficulty breathing, coughing and other respiratory ailments; reduced oxygen levels; stomach upset; and even mental confusion—all of which have been mentioned as symptoms of elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide.

White Environmental Consultants, Inc., of Anchorage, was contracted by the City of Seward to visit the community of Lowell Point throughout the day today (Tuesday, Aug. 12) to test the air levels of Hydrogen Sulfide, the substance emitted from waste-water lagoons that smells like raw sewage.

The residents of Lowell Point, and visitors of that scenic beach-side community don’t need a monitor to tell them what’s in the air. They’ve been smelling it, day and night. But they’d like firm, scientific confirmation of what they already suspect—that it’s actually present in amounts high enough to be affecting their health.

Small bubble aerators are a welcome sight at the City of Seward's passive wastewater lagoon lagoon. Heidi Zemach photo
New small bubble aerators operating at the City of Seward’s wastewater lagoon. Heidi Zemach photo

Speakers said visitors were leaving their cottages early and writing bad reviews on Trip Advisor, or cancelling their visits. Employees also were leaving their positions earlier than planned, and at least one business owner will no longer take bookings for next year’s tourist season due to her uncertainty. That, despite the fact that the city is about to hire a company to dredge and repair the lagoon at Lowell Point and the smaller city lagoon at Seward Marine Industrial Center (SMIC), with a completion date of June 15, 2015.

Although the lagoon stench was also an issue last spring, summer and into the fall with some Lowell Point residents attending council meetings throughout the year, this time council members truly appeared to have their attention. One reason for their additional angst was that the odor has been wafting into town lately. But even more so, the public, statewide airing on Monday evening on a series of NBC TV news broadcasts from Anchorage, described the problem at the Seward lagoon during the height of the Silver Salmon Derby and an unusually busy tourist season.

Lowell Point residents denied rumors that they had contacted the Anchorage news station, and said that the news tip had come from several visitors to Seward after noticing the smell. Assistant City Manager Ron Long also denied the untrue rumors of raw sewage being dumped directly into Resurrection Bay, which may have stemmed from either the smell itself, or from the city’s repeated requests earlier to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. The City of Seward had requested  an exemption permit to let them release untreated wastewater into the bay from the SMIC site while the dredging project was being undertaken—which DEC officials had repeatedly denied the city.

Council member Rissie Casagranda apologized profoundly to every member of Lowell Point for personally lacking in due diligence to get a repair project into place more quickly, and sympathized with what they were going through.  Others, including Dave Squires, blamed previous councils and administrations, however, and said “the Magnificent Seven” were doing all they could to get things taken care of at the Lagoon, and had made significant progress.

In their comments to council, Lowell Point business owners chided the council and administration for not having properly maintained the facility over the past two decades, which, according to the city’s own recommendations should have included regular dredging and maintenance at 6-8 year intervals. The lagoon has not been dredged in 22 years.

“What happened? How did it go wrong? Or did people know it was wrong all along?” asked Bill Pfisterer. For the first time in his life, he has to take aspirins for daily headaches, and he comes indoors and prays that his neighbor will start a fire that might mask the odor. He blamed the problem on a failure of leadership from the City of Seward’s chain of command. “I’m sorry but you have really got a problem,” he concluded.

The lagoon has ruined the summer for her business, and her personal peace of mind, said Pam Souza, of Liquid Adventures. She could no longer sit outside on the porch and enjoy the surroundings, or even open her windows.

“It stinks so bad it’s like I’m living in my own septic tank,” said Gayle Selyem.

Her voice was hoarse because of her ongoing illness, which she attributed to the wastewater lagoon, said Sherrie Miller, of Miller’s Landing, a prime tourist destination that provides cabins, boat rentals and kayak excursions. She’s been seriously sick, short of breath, and had to go to the hospital in Anchorage and be put on steroids last week because her lungs were so constricted, she said. Her oxygen levels also were low, and her eyes were so swollen that the doctor would not treat her.

Karl VanBuskirk, who owns Storm Chasers boat maintenance yard, a couple of miles downwind of the lagoon, said the smell was “overwhelming,” and he had concerns for the health of his employees. He suggested that the city consider that its population had perhaps outgrown the lagoon’s capacity.

They also debated the best methods for air monitoring, although nobody was an expert on the subject.

W.C. Casey admits complaints are justified, promises to find the cause and a solution in Sept, 2013. Heidi Zemach file photo.
W.C. Casey admits complaints are justified, promises to find the cause and a solution in Sept, 2013. Heidi Zemach file photo.

City Public Works Director WC Casey acknowledged the offensive odor, but said he’s been using the gas detectors that the city generally uses in confined spaces, such as inside the pump station and wastewater facility building, and that the machine had detected nothing—meaning that the hydrogen sulfide was not present at hazardous levels. In fact, it was the same machine that White Environmental Consultants would be using at Lowell Point on Tuesday, he said. This caused council members to question the efficacy of the upcoming tests, and whether a single day of sampling would produce reliable results. Councilwomen Christy Terry asked for the best possibly quality, 24-hour air monitoring, so they could at least report the results to the media.

Lynda Paquette, the owner of Angel’s Rest, who has been leading the ongoing struggle by certain Lowell Point area residents and business owners, said the city’s “confined space” H2S air monitor that Casey described was not the correct type of equipment with which to monitor the air that the community breathes. She passed out information she had researched on another piece of portable monitoring equipment by a company called “Draeger,” that she believed would work better for monitoring the air conditions. It listed various levels of hydrogen sulfide exposures, and the health consequences for each level. Council members Dave Squires and Dale Butts, both experienced longtime firefighters, disputed Paquette’s claims, pointing out that their own gas detector air monitors can be calibrated to test outdoor air standards.

Meanwhile, Global Community Monitor, an independent citizen’s industrial pollution monitoring group in partnership with Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance, is sending a simple air monitoring devise and a couple of sampling bags to Seward to test low levels of hydrogen sulfide in the area at Lowell Point.

The devise consists of two sample bags and a vacuum air pump system designed by Denny Larson, the executive director of GCM. The equipment was designed expressly for the purpose of capturing suspicious odor samples, and sending them to an independent laboratory for scientific analysis that will enable them to identify much lower-level concentrations of hydrogen sulfide than many of the hand held monitors do, Larson told Seward City News.

The accuracy of equipment in monitoring low levels of hydrogen sulfide depends on the equipment being used, he said. Some measure parts per million, while others measure parts per billion. Exposure to hydrogen sulfide levels as low as two parts per billion, over a period of time, is believed to cause negative health effects like the ones that Lowell Point residents described, he said. If one’s monitor’s detection limits aren’t low enough, however, they will read “no detection,” and might give the false impression that the problem is therefore insignificant.

The monitors typically used by municipalities or fire departments are designed, and typically used to detect high, immediately dangerous levels of gasses in the air, and a positive detection reading might prompt a fire official to immediately evacuate a building, and shut off the gas or other source of the concern. But the low levels of hydrogen sulfide that may be present at Lowell Point, might be missed with that particular equipment.

Council planned a public work session for next Monday at 6:00 p.m. to discuss the Lowell Point situation and planned sludge removal project in depth. They asked administration to invite White Environmental Consultants, Michael L. Foster contract engineer Loren Leman, and Merrell Brothers, the company that submitted the lowest bid for the upcoming project.


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