Wrangell’s Public Works Director Tom Wetor points out lift stations on a map of Wrangell’s sewer system.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

Coastal communities throughout Alaska have environmental waivers that let them pipe minimally-treated sewage into the ocean. Many of the permits were issued decades ago, and water quality standards have since tightened. Now, towns like Wrangell are facing huge costs as they look at adding disinfection processes at their sewage treatment plants. 

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Sewage treatment isn’t a quiet process, so standing next to Wrangell’s wastewater treatment plant inflow, Public Works Director Tom Wetor has to almost yell. 

“Basically, everything that’s covered in the insulation here, that is where the wastewater comes into the system,” he says, pointing to a ten-foot-high pyramid structure oozing orange insulation from its seams. The sound of rushing water is powerful. “There’s a screen located inside of what you’re looking at there. And that takes out wet wipes, tampons, condoms, all kinds of other things that get flushed down the toilet that aren’t supposed to.”

Screened sewage goes through a collection of ponds where microbes feast on sludge and bubbling oxygen from pipes fixed below the surface, breaking down solids. 

Eventually, that treated sewage gets sent through a pipe beneath the highway, next to the cemetery, and along the ocean floor about 1,500 feet offshore in the Zimovia Strait. 

Many coastal communities in Alaska operate similarly – from nearby Ketchikan to Sitka and even Anchorage – they all have a federal wastewater permit waiver called a 301(h) waiver. The waiver is a decades-long collaboration between state and federal agencies governing wastewater treatment and water quality standards. While the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to issue the waivers, communities still have to comply with state water quality standards.  

Wrangell’s aeration pond (left) and polishing pond (right) at the community’s wastewater treatment facility.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

“There are relatively few 301(h) waivers around the country,” explains Bill Dunbar, a spokesperson for the EPA. “I think currently, there are about two dozen [in the U.S.], nine of which are in the state of Alaska.”

The program began in the early 1980s, and allows certain coastal communities to operate on minimal sewage treatment systems, called primary treatment systems – ones that don’t necessarily disinfect, but allow solids to settle out before waste is disposed of in the ocean. That has the potential to cause problems. 

“People still do get sick from swimming in polluted waters,” Dunbar says. “This is a real risk, right? Sewage is a real risk to people’s health. And sewage is a real risk to people’s health through the consumption of fish in shellfish that have been contaminated from sewage.”

The EPA and state Department of Environmental Conservation told Wrangell a couple of years ago they’d be reissuing the community’s sewer permit with much stricter standards. That notification formally came last October

“Things have changed rather significantly in the state of Alaska and the way the state is implementing the Clean Water Act,” Dunbar explains, “significantly ratcheting down the amount of pollution that is allowed to be discharged into Alaska waters.”

Alaska established new water quality standards in 2017, specifically focusing on bacterial limits. That meant that the EPA, the sole authority able to issue the 301(h) waivers, had to look at upgrades. 

Gene McCabe is the Wastewater Discharge Authorization Program Manager for the state Department of Environmental Conservation. 

“Right now, the permits have a fairly high bacteria limit,” McCabe explains. “For the most part, the average limit is 1.5 million fecal coliform bacteria per 100 milliliters of water, which is a mouthful, but it’s fairly high. Our intent is to get a disinfection requirement into those – each of the 301(h) permits – and bring that down to the order of about 800 fecal coliform units per 100 milliliters water, which is a substantial reduction in the types of bacteria and the amount of bacteria that you can find in receiving water.”

While the agencies aren’t asking for full-blown sewage treatment, also called secondary treatment, Wrangell may be required to implement a new disinfection step within the next five years to be allowed to keep discharging sewage. Wetor, Wrangell’s Public Works director, says it involves review and comment on hundreds of pages of documents.

“It’s been quite a bit of back and forth with [EPA and DEC] over the last two years on what they were and were not going to require,” Wetor says. “It’s a slow process. And we’re working through it now.”

There’s a reason for that back and forth. Wrangell and the state and federal agencies have disagreements about some of the science – how fast water moves out in the strait, for example. 

Wetor explains, “If they’re using a number that says the current [in the Zimovia Strait] is only one knot, but then we’re finding a number on the NOAA website from the same station they say that they’re using that says it’s actually 1.4 [knots], that’s a pretty big difference on how much water is moving out in front of town.”

But it’s also a slow and methodical process by nature. Dunbar, with the EPA, says that’s in part because the Clean Water Act – which these permits and waivers fall under – contains a robust provision for citizens to sue. 

“So we really do need to dot i’s and cross t’s and make sure that every last rule regulation is being complied with in this permit process,” Dunbar says. “Once permit conditions are established – so essentially, pollution limits are established – they need to be met. Because when they’re not, it’s very easy for a community or an agency to get sued, and then to be required to do something that may be that may cost them more [than the disinfection itself] and it may include legal fees.”

Some of the back-and-forth communication between the agencies and Wrangell is that the community also has significant concerns about the cost of a new disinfection process and testing requirements.

“Ultimately,” Public Works Director Wetor says, “All of these things are going to have an impact on: Number One, capital expenses; Number Two, operating expenses; and Number Three, possibly staffing.”

In total, Wrangell’s water and wastewater treatment plants are run by three people. Wetor says the departments feel the squeeze already, without more complex systems to keep track of. 

“Right now we have one staff member who’s split time between water and sewer, and we’re trying to build a new water treatment plant at the moment, and that process is also going to require – may require changes in staffing,” Wetor explains. “If somebody is out on vacation, and then somebody gets sick, we’re down to one person to manage two full time facilities.”

With new equipment to monitor and more testing, Wetor says Public Works will likely have to expand the operation. 

“I would be surprised if we were able to maintain it at what our current levels are,” he says.

Even so, under its current permit, Wetor says Wrangell actually regularly outperforms the sewage removal requirements. And that’s a piece of the concern. 

“We don’t want to be going from a plant that is operating very well under its permit, to one that is getting more and more dings for being out of compliance,” he says. 

And that’s a possibility with the proposed new disinfection and testing requirements. 

Some water quality sampling happens off-island or on a boat. When there’s an eight-hour time limit to get a sample 120 miles north to the nearest lab in Juneau, Wetor says it doesn’t leave a lot of room for Southeast weather or other potential travel issues.

That’s not to mention the cost of increased testing and monitoring. Wetor says the testing budget alone will probably quadruple under the terms of the new wastewater permit. Overall, Wetor says with more testing, the potential need for new staff and new materials could add $250,000 or more to the plant’s annual operating budget.

Adding a disinfection step will require Wrangell to build a new building over the effluent – or what leaves the plant – and add an additional treatment process inside. 

That would probably be either chlorine treatment or ultraviolet light treatment. There are pros and cons to both. Chlorine might be cheaper initially, but it would expose workers to a hazardous substance and has higher long-term materials costs. UV would be more expensive to put in up front, and higher electrical usage. 

An engineer estimated in April that adding a disinfection step to Wrangell’s wastewater treatment plant could cost around $12.6 million.

That’s significant for a small community like Wrangell, with around 2,100 residents on the island. Last year’s entire budget for the whole City and Borough of Wrangell was less than double the wastewater plant upgrade cost estimate

“They’re big expenses for a small town to undertake,” Wetor says, “And that is something we are trying to advocate on behalf of the city for with the enforcement agencies that will be implementing this permit.”

Wetor says Wrangell has pushed back on the EPA and DEC since the beginning of conversations about upgrades, explaining that Wrangell can’t afford them. He says there’s been little give – Wrangell may be able to secure a low-interest loan to do the work. But even with a low-interest loan, user fees could have to more than double. 

“If we don’t get free money from somewhere, we’ve got to pay for it somehow,” Wetor says. “And as an enterprise fund, [the wastewater fund] should essentially be run like a nonprofit. You’re not making money, but you’re making enough to be able to maintain what you have. So… definitely some concerns about this.”

Wrangell was the first of six Alaska communities to have their permits targeted for the first round of renewals. Haines received formal notification earlier this year, and four other Southeast communities – Skagway, Petersburg, Ketchikan and Sitka – will have permit waiver updates coming soon. 

Neither Wetor nor Dunbar can really say why Wrangell was first. It’s certainly not alphabetic, and isn’t targeting the largest waiver-holders – Anchorage is by far the largest Alaska community with a permit to send minimally treated sewage out into the water. Compared to Wrangell’s $12.6 million cost estimate, Anchorage has another level of financial crunch coming once its permit is reexamined: At a meeting earlier this year, Wrangell Borough Manager Jeff Good told assembly members he’d heard Anchorage’s wastewater treatment upgrades could cost a billion dollars or more. 

Dunbar says the EPA understands that the upgrades are really expensive. 

“There’s no doubt about it,” Dunbar says. “It’s significant infrastructure.” 

But, Dunbar continues, “Oftentimes people say, ‘Gosh, that’s a lot of money.’ But it’s an investment over time that improves people’s health that can help maintain the health of, say, shellfish beds, or maybe the shellfish industry if that’s something that is important in the community. So the public health benefits are very real.”

Gene McCabe, with the state DEC’s wastewater discharge program, shares a similar sentiment. 

“Overall, we’re going to find a much cleaner discharge,” McCabe says, “with less potential impacts to shellfish harvesting, contact recreation in the water, noncontact recreation like kayaking and boating. So, we definitely are encouraged to see improvement on the bacteria levels of these facilities.”

Wetor says it’s not that Wrangell is arguing against cleaner water standards. But reaching those standards could be prohibitively difficult. That includes the space physically available at Wrangell’s wastewater treatment plant. On one side is the highway, which runs between the cemetery and the ocean. 

“If someday we were forced to do secondary treatment, that would get real interesting then in terms of space and how we would implement that here,” Wetor says, overlooking the ponds at the wastewater treatment facility. “We’re basically surrounded by a rock pit. It’s bedrock, pretty much everywhere around us.”

Ultimately, Wetor says, “We need to start talking about this now. Five years will go by quickly. It could take a year to do design. It could take a year or two for construction. It’s going to take us time to get somebody on board and go through the contract process and everything like that, and then you have to be in operation for so much time within that five years to be able to meet these requirements.”

“It’s definitely a doable timeframe,” he says. “But we don’t have a lot of time to waste.”

No pun intended.

Get in touch with KSTK at news@kstk.org or (907) 874-2345.