EPA tells Wrangell it needs to disinfect its sewage discharge

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that its updated permit for the Wrangell wastewater treatment plant will contain stricter limits on the amounts of bacteria the facility can discharge into Zimovia Strait.

Wrangell will need to update its treatment operation to include disinfection of discharged wastewater, which will decrease fecal coliform and enterococcus bacteria counts. The borough will have five years to comply with new requirements.

Disinfection will be “a major project for us,” said Borough Manager Jeff Good. He estimates that implementing additional treatment at the plant will cost between $3 million and $5 million, though until the borough hires an engineer and begins the design process, the exact cost is uncertain.

Disinfection options include chlorine or ultraviolet light. The borough can choose its preferred method, Good explained, and though the options each have their strengths and weaknesses, both will require a significant investment.

“I would rather take the entire life cycle cost into play as far as what option we go with,” he said. “Even if we have (an option) that’s initially more expensive up front, if the life cycle cost is way cheaper, then that would probably be the preference.”

The 20-year-old treatment plant updates will be funded using a combination of state loans and borough funds. Good is hopeful that the borough will not have to further increase utility rates to bring the wastewater plant into compliance, but he can’t be certain until he knows the cost of the project.

“We’ve already raised the water rates and we also raised the sewage rates,” he said. “We would have to go back and calculate. I’m hoping that … we would be able to cover any debt based off of those new rates that we have in place.”

The borough assembly raised sewage rates by 21% this summer, after going seven years without an increase.

The state provides “low-interest loans for communities like Wrangell to take on a project like this,” said Gene McCabe, wastewater treatment program manager with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. McCabe also indicated a high likelihood that portions of the community’s loan debt would be forgiven by the state. “They borrow $2 million, we forgive half of that, so it’s a payback of a million dollars,” he said.

Wrangell is one of nine Alaska communities that have been operating under a federal Clean Water Act waiver, which allowed them to discharge wastewater into the ocean that had undergone less than full secondary treatment. The discharge pipe from the Wrangell plants extends about 1,700 feet into deeper water.

As the EPA and DEC reevaluate these waivers, they are bringing area communities up to date on current water quality standards. DEC Water Division Director Randy Bates said the changes are the result of “20 years of improvements” and “20 years of data.”

“There are improvements that we can and should make based on current information that’s out there,” he said. “The better the treatment, the better the water. The better the water, the better the recreational opportunity and less impact folks are going to feel.”

Other Southeast communities, including Haines, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Sitka and Skagway, will be receiving new permit requirements from the EPA in the coming months. Like Wrangell, these communities will all be required to meet new disinfection standards in the next five years.

Of the remaining 45 permit waivers nationwide from secondary-treatment standards, nine are in Alaska, Bates told state legislators earlier this year.


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