Wrangell is one of the first coastal communities in Alaska to face major wastewater treatment upgrade requirements in the coming years. The new testing and treatment could cost millions, and Wrangell officials say they feel like they’re aiming for a moving target.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has updated its proposed new wastewater treatment permit for the island community of Wrangell. It’s the first of nine Alaska communities that all operate under the same type of wastewater permit waiver to face updates.
The agency initially proposed a permit with new requirements in October of last year. But there have since been changes. EPA spokesperson Bill Dunbar says the newest proposal corrects some internal errors made by agency staff like one with the allowable ammonia limit.
“We discovered that it needed some nips and tucks,” Dunbar says. “There were a couple of errors that we needed to tidy up.”
The updated proposal also adds additional testing requirements, like testing growth rates and toxicity in various fish and shellfish species.
“We also did add monitoring for PFAS, which is what we call an emerging contaminant that EPA and others are concerned about and interested in,” Dunbar explains, “So there’s some monitoring that’s required now under that permit.”
Wrangell’s wastewater treatment facility is one of a handful in the state that operates on what’s called a 301H waiver. It’s a federal permit that upholds state water quality standards while allowing certain coastal communities to forgo full treatment of sewage – it basically allows the communities to pipe minimally treated waste into the ocean.
“It’s a very close partnership with the state to make sure that as we write new permits under this waiver program, that they still meet state water quality standards,” he adds.
Dunbar says the focal point of updated permits is new state water quality standards for a few types of bacteria. The new permits try to clamp down on potential fecal bacterial contamination in the waters around communities where people recreate or harvest seafood.
Wrangell’s Public Works Director Tom Wetor acknowledges that Wrangell discharges sewage in waters where locals go crabbing and recreate. But, he says, the increases to testing and treatment requirements in the proposed permit are crushing.
“The old adage used to be, ‘the solution to pollution is dilution,’” Wetor says, “And that’s essentially what the Wrangell plant was designed to do.”
He’s been in communication with wastewater regulatory agencies, and says it’s been a frustrating process.
“The 301 h waiver was, I think, intended for more rural areas that had massive receiving waters. Southeast Alaska, most of the towns are smaller places with big ocean in front of them and lots of current,” Wetor explains, “And now the rules are changing and the solution to pollution is not really dilution anymore. They want it actually treated, not just diluted.”
Wetor calls the updated permit a “massive” increase in testing requirements.
“We’ve just been trying to get across to the EPA, just how challenging this is going to be for small towns with minimal resources,” Wetor says. “As far as I know, some of the new requirements, I don’t even know if there’s a lab in the state of Alaska to test those.”
Wrangell’s current wastewater treatment system won’t be able to meet the new requirements. The community will have to set up a disinfection step for the effluent, or what leaves the treatment plant.
Initial engineering estimates put the price tag of the new setup at over $12.5 million. Wetor says testing expenses alone will likely increase four to five times what they are now.
He says it’s been a discouraging process to work with the regulatory agencies on the community’s new permit.
“From one year to the next, they just continue adding more and more requirements and stipulations in,” Wetor says. He says it feels like every time he meets with the EPA or state Division of Environmental Conservation (DEC) which sets state water standards, the goalposts continue to be moved.
“At the end of the day, Wrangell gets it and we’re on board, we want to have good water quality being discharged out into the receiving waters,” Wetor says. “But it feels a little bit like the EPA basically didn’t do anything for 20 years, and now they’re trying to make up for lost time and they’re trying to cram everything down on us here all at once.”
Before the new proposed permit, Wrangell’s wastewater treatment permit waiver (301H) had been administratively extended for nearly two decades, without many significant changes. The EPA says newer water quality standards passed by the state of Alaska starting in 2017 prompted the agency to start updating permits.
Wetor says he feels it’s a situation where poor testing performance influenced by outside pollution factors could be used to sanction Wrangell and impose even stricter (and more expensive) treatment in the not-so-distant future.
“We have to test the effluent, what is leaving the plant, so we should know what those numbers are, absolutely,” Wetor says. “But then we’re also testing all around the receiving waters and all up and down the shoreline, for a couple of miles in each direction of the discharge pipe. If there’s boats in any of the harbors who don’t have a proper working toilet, and they’re dumping into the harbor, that is definitely going to impact our receiving waters. If people walk their dogs on City Park beach, and we’ve had a dry month, and some of that stuff may have accumulated, that’s going to impact our sampling. If there’s a flock of geese on the beach, City Park that could impact our testing.”
One major concern, he says, is the fact that 301H waivers last five years. He worries Wrangell could scrabble to complete requirements in the current proposed permit, only to have major upgrades to treatment requirements required in half a decade.
Wrangell’s current plant operates on what’s called “primary” treatment of wastewater. If the community was to be required to implement “secondary” sewage treatment, Wetor says the upgrades could cost well over $30 million, on top of the costs to implement a disinfection step under the current proposal.
“In some ways, there’s a lot of variables once you’re out in the receiving waters, and once you’re on the ocean, any number of things could impact those numbers,” Wetor says. “Something that I’m concerned about, is that it’s not the most accurate representation. And ultimately, that information could be used against us.”
Wrangell is on the smaller end of communities with 301H waivers – others in Southeast include Petersburg, Sitka and Ketchikan. There are some major cities with the waivers as well, like Anchorage and even San Diego.
The other 301H communities also face permit updates and increased requirements in the coming years. Wetor says Wrangell and other smaller Southeast communities are working with national engineering firm HDR to try and communicate with regulatory agencies as a bloc.
Although the permit isn’t final quite yet, Wetor says Wrangell officials are trying to “think outside of the box” and find funding to meet the new requirements without overburdening ratepayers. Utility rates in the community have jumped in the past two years already, with sewer rates increased by around 50%. Wetor says EPA officials told him that they’d take into consideration the community’s comments about cost.
“I was like, ‘Well, yeah, consideration doesn’t pay the bills,’” Wetor says, “So until we know that we’re gonna get some help on this or that there’s going to be some help with the funding for these mandates, we have to assume that we’re paying for it out of our own pocket, and we can’t afford that.”
Wrangell submitted comments on its updated proposed permit at the end of August. Wetor says he thinks the final permit could be issued in October – the EPA has a 60-day window to respond. Then, it’ll be crunch time for Wrangell to set up new testing procedures and get moving on sewage disinfection to fulfill the requirements before the next permit review, five years from now.
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