The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Fern Greenbank
LOG Editor 

Lowell Point Lagoon dredging bids opened, air testing to begin


Wolfgang Kurtz | The Seward Phoenix LOG

The peaceful Lowell Point community, that relies heavily on tourism, has been plagued for a year with a severe odor problem caused by the sewage lagoon nearby.

Despite the airing of a Channel 2 news story about the Lowell Point lagoon this week, progress is being made to address the current smell and the underlying cause at the Lowell Point Lowell Point Wastewater Treatment Facility.

"We've always had a good working relationship with Channel 2 news in the past," said Jim Hunt, Seward city manager. "I'm not sure why they decided to do this to us in the middle of peak season with the Silver Salmon Derby and more than 1,300 legislators coming to town for tours."

Hunt said just as the city is progressing toward a solution, Channel 2 drew attention to the problem.

Public Works director W.C. Casey said the television station contacted his office because someone reported that raw sewage was being discharged into Resurrection Bay.

"I told them that was not true," said Casey. "We are certainly not pumping sewage into the bay."

Hunt said a story like this, without decades of complicated context, doesn't just hurt Seward, it hurts the residents of Lowell Point.

At the Monday council meeting, Lowell Point resident Terry Arnold said she wasn't intending to speak at the meeting, but then she saw the Channel 2 story.

"This is a disaster for Seward," she said. "We are devastated. But it's out there and we are going to have to deal with it."

Arnold said it is not true that the residents of Lowell Point called Channel 2. The reporter, she said, told them so many calls were made to the TV station that they checked with the Department of Environmental Conservation and found a number of DEC complaints.

"We have to work together," said Arnold. "We need to dispel myths."

Half a dozen Lowell Point residents spoke at the council meeting. Most of the speakers expressed health and business concerns. The residents pointed out four issues. There are concerns about the smell and the impact on their businesses. There are concerns about health based on symptoms they are having. The residents want to know that the city is doing everything possible as quickly as possible to turn the situation around. And, they want to know how this was allowed to happen in the first place.

"I have 15 staff members that are otherwise happy," said John Page, owner of Sunny Cove, an outdoor tourism company located at Lowell Point. "But some can't handle the living environment. I have received negative complaints on Trip Advisor because they say there is raw sewage at the site. If this becomes a media event, it will have an unfortunate impact for the City of Seward."

Other residents also testified to the impact of the lagoon odor on their businesses.

Pam Sousa from Liquid Adventures said she came here because it was peaceful and you could be out in nature.

"The sewage has ruined the experience for customers and guests," said Sousa. "People just go elsewhere. We need your support. Take charge and take responsibility."

Sue Lang, manager of the Silver Derby Campground and owner of A Cottage On The Bay, says she is purposely not booking for next May and June because she doesn't want a repeat of this year.

"That's 25 percent of my income and I don't want my business destroyed," said Lang. "I am inviting all of you to come spend the night as our guest and smell for yourselves."

Lang said so many people left Lowell Point this summer because of the odor that she wants to salvage her accommodation reputation by not booking during the stinkiest months.

Another Lowell Point business owner, Karl VanBuskirk of Storm Chasers, said the odor is affecting his workplace.

"As an employer, I worry about my liability," said VanBuskirk."It's an indignation and we shouldn't have to beg."

Other residents shared their health concerns with the council.

Lowell Point resident Sherry Miller said she has traveled to Europe and Mexico multiple times and every time she returns to Lowell Point, she gets sick.

Lowell Point resident Bill Pfisterer said he has resorted to taking aspirin every day for headaches.

"I'm not exaggerating," he said. "Every night I have to smell this smell. I pray my neighbor will start a fire. Go camp out there and find out yourself."

Appearing in the Channel 2 news program was Lowell Point resident Lynda Paquette. She said she has done a lot of research trying to understand the health risks and options for measuring hydrogen sulfide emissions.

"You don't find a lot about hydrogen sulfide, because there aren't many situations where it is produced outside," said Paquette. "Not even a dump generates hydrogen sulfide outside."

Paquette said there are studies related to workplace hazards, but those studies focus on confined spaces and exposure for eight-hour periods.

"We live in it 24 hours a day," she said."

Paquette provided the council with data showing the amount of hydrogen sulfide that would result in certain symptoms. The data showed that .008 parts per million (ppm) is the level that is usually associated with the smell. Then, at 2 ppm people with asthma can be affected. From 5-10 ppm, you can start having decreased oxygenation and at 20 ppm, people can start to show signs of fatigue, headaches and dizziness.

"I am recovering from a broken femur," said Paquette. "Being dizzy is not a good thing for me right now."

Some residents made reference to what they feel is city mismanagement.

Lang said she believes the city should have had enough money set aside for regular maintenance to address regular dredging or inspections of the lagoon.

Assistant city manager Ron Long says the taxes Seward residents pay does include maintenance, which is set aside. But, he said the city could not foresee a regulatory change that would not allow for temporary bypass permits to discharge into the bay from one cell while doing maintenance on the other cell.

Wade Strickland with the DEC wastewater permitting department said there was an amendment in 1977 that allowed for modification of the Clean Water Act. That modification allowed municipalities to apply for a waiver in order to discharge sewage into marine waters. If you met a deadline for the waiver in 1979, you could be considered. After that date, the waiver was not available.

The city has asked for a temporary bypass permit, said Strickland, but was denied.

"Certain criteria have to be met and the city doesn't meet those criteria," said Strickland.

He says the situation must be life threatening, unavoidable or the result of a natural disaster. The only alternative to discharging into the bay to perform maintenance is a second "package plant." This is a "portable" treatment plant brought to the lagoon. And it's expensive, said Strickland.

It is this plant package that is proposed for the dredging of the lagoon, said Long.

Bids for the dredging of the lagoon were opened Monday. The low bid was $3.8 million, more than the $1.3 million allocated from the state and the $500,000 set aside by the city.

Long told the council he would put together a funding package and submit to them as soon as possible. In the meantime, the city has contracted in Anchorage with White Environmental Consultants to test the air quality at the lagoon. Public works director Casey said he and his staff have been testing for hydrogen sulfide every day and so far the equipment says none is detected.

"We all know there is an odor," said Casey. "But it is not at a hazardous level on our machines."

Long said consultants were asked to measure with the same equipment to make sure the city's equipment is operating properly and to assure residents that readings are accurate.

However, some council members requested the consultant test longer than eight hours to make sure levels are taken during the same time of day the residents are experiencing the odor at its worst.

Former fire chief Dave Squires said he borrowed the city's equipment and went out to test himself. He said he is fully trained to calibrate and use the device. He also got a reading of "non-detect," but he admits he did have a headache when he left. He agreed that one day of testing is not enough.

Long is taking the council's direction and will be asking the environmental contractor to provide longer term testing options.

The air quality issue is also being monitored by the Department of Environmental Conservation in cooperation with the city, said Jeremy Ptak, environmental program manager at DEC in the air quality division.

"There is no ambient air quality monitoring required by the DEC or the EPA," said Ptak. "But the city is monitoring with its own equipment and has been monitoring it with our knowledge."

"The goal right now," said Ptak, "is to work with the government agencies and the city to determine if there are health hazards related to the lagoon."

The information from the third party will be assessed and an action plan formed, said Ptak.

He said the DEC has been in contact with the city regularly since a violation was issued in 2003 related to coliform levels found at the lagoon. An action plan was created at that time.

Ptak said just because the readings are showing up as "non-detected," doesn't mean there is no detected odor. He acknowledges that residents are concerned that odor may have a connection to health, but a connection is not known at this time.

Council members swiftly addressed the public comments at the Monday meeting, in particular with regard to testing the air quality. All council members were in agreement that quick action was necessary to assure residents they were taking their concerns seriously.

"Frankly, I'm embarrassed," said councilwoman Christy Terry. "I think we need serious legitimate testing. Let's look at the council funds to see if we have money to put toward testing now."

White Environmental Consultants quoted the city $1,500 to test at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.

After citizen comments, council members had an opportunity to directly address members of the Lowell Point community present.

"I want to apologize to every resident of Lowell Point," said councilwoman Ristine Casagranda. "I lacked in due diligence. I am sorry. I truly feel what you are going through."

Councilman Squires, however, wanted to remind the residents that the current council is not the past council.

"They probably didn't keep up their end of the bargain," he said. "But this council is really trying. We direct the staff. If the staff does not act in a timely manner, they will answer to us. Government moves slow but it does move. We do know it reeks out there."

Councilman Butts expressed a concern about accurate information.

"We are doing the very best we can," said Butts. "But let's be sure we are dealing with facts, not rumors."

One fact that is in dispute is the number of calls made to government agencies about city "mismanagement" of the sewage facility. In the Channel 2 report this week, reporter Grace Jang said Lowell Point residents and business owners filed 2,500 complaints about the city's mismanagement of the lagoon.

Ptak, with the DEC air quality division, said he has received 95 complaints about odor in the past year but he doesn't see anyone reporting city malfeasance as a primary complaint.

Reporter Jang said she was told this by Lowell Point residents. But, Lowell Point business owner Lynda Paquette said Monday night she was told this by the reporter.

Council members said they wanted to tackle this problem head-on by scheduling a work session on Monday, August 18. The administration and council said they will invite a variety of specialists to provide advice and they will brainstorm the most efficient and expeditious way to deal with the odor.

"I also want the contractor to work with the residents," said Casagranda. "I want to embrace them and make them feel part of the process."

At some point, evaluating how this problem occurred needs to be discussed, said Lowell Point residents in their remarks to the council. Long said he can't give the council or residents a "hard and fast" answer to the question about the time it has taken to find funding and get a proper dredging performed.

"There's a combination of reasons it has taken so long," said Long. "The good news is, we have a good bid. We have to find additional funding, but we have a good bid."

The receipt of a good bid wasn't the only good news to come from the meeting.

"I do feel you've heard us," said Lowell Point resident Terry Arnold. "And that you are going to make something happen."


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