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

By Fern Greenbank
LOG Editor 

Council work session tackles LP lagoon


The city council held a special work session Monday night to discuss the Lowell Point lagoon in order to ask questions of the city’s consultant engineer in a less informal environment and to allow Lowell Point residents to be heard.

Leman, who has not been present at the last three city council meetings when Lowell Point residents have expressed frustration, anger and concerns, is a consultant with the engineering firm of Foster and Associates in Eagle River. He has been the point man for issues related to the sewage lagoon at Lowell Point. Seward’s director of public works, W.C. Casey, uses the engineering firm’s services for complex matters involving the wastewater facility.

“I commend the decision to build a low tech lagoon 35 years ago,” said Leman. “It is designed to be relatively maintenance free, at least compared to others types of lagoons.”

He admitted that sludge should be removed every 7-10 years and he gave credit to the lagoon for lasting as long as it has.

Leman fielded questions from residents and the city council for more than two hours. He attributed the lagoon problems to the growth in Seward and warm weather.

“The lagoon can handle an increased load,” said Leman, “just not necessarily sustained increased loading.”

“Since last year, we have secured funding for sludge removal,” said Leman. “The legislature was responsive to the need because of the impact the lagoon has on the prison. The state did recognize that one obligation.”

Leman, of course, is referring to the SMIC lagoon as it is included in the bid put out by the city for Lowell Point sludge removal. He says he does not know which will come first, SMIC or Lowell Point. He said it depends on the cost for the contractor, which in turn meanst cost to the city.

The work session vacillated back and forth from the issue of cost, to timeframe for sludge removal to health concerns to air testing to business damage.

A major point of contention is the Lowell Point residents’ concerns that sludge removal will not be completed in time to salvage next summer’s tourism season. The council posed questions to Leman about the reason for waiting until spring rather than requiring the work to start immediately.

“That’s probably a matter of cost,” said Leman, though he has not seen the bids submitted by contractors.

Leman said the city asked the contractors to be “innovative” to try and save money, so they are waiting to see if the low bidder’s ideas will work for the city. He said permitting from the Department of Environmental Conservation could take up to seven months because the contractor has to find alternative sites for sludge delivery while it cleans out the lagoon.

It was suggested that Leman and the city administrators discuss incentives with the contractor to see if money talks and speeds up the process, starting earlier and ending earlier. Currently, the contractor is scheduled to finish by June 1, but some Lowell Point residents say their businesses start gearing up in April and their season may be a disaster even if the work is finished by June 1.

Lowell Point resident and business owner Lynda Paquette expressed exasperation at the process and the likelihood her business can’t survive another stinky tourist season.

“I’m outraged. We’ve been coming up here for a year and we are in the exact same place,” said Paquette. “Why not October 1?”

Again Leman said the contractor probably couldn’t mobilize equipment that fast. The request for proposals gave potential contractors a large window for performance, otherwise the bids would have been much more expensive, he said.

When discussion moved back to the current smell, Councilwoman Iris Darling pressed Leman about emergency measures available to salvage businesses and residents’ quality of life right now. The only viable option presented was calcium nitrate, which the city is already using to decrease the smell. Public Works Director WC Casey said he is using the manufacturers dosing schedule but agreed to go back and research more to see if additional nitrate is needed.

Councilman Dale Butts asked Leman who he goes to when he needs advice. Leman’s initial response was himself, but did offer up some published authors as references he uses. Leman said he has asked the DEC for help with the air quality issue.

“They more or less said, good luck with that, so I went to the private sector for testing equipment,” said Leman.

At one point, Leman said he wasn’t aware there was anything wrong with the aerators, but was reminded that the aerators have a leak and air is escaping to places unknown, which causes the smell to increase.

Leman said the smell will get worse when the sludge removal begins and there are no plans currently in place to mitigate that issue. The council asked what other cities do when they experience this problem.

“Ponds are not usually so close to people,” said Leman.

So, Councilwoman Christine Terry asked Leman specifically to find out what can be done.

“People are smelling this and having headaches,” said Terry. “Is it mass hysteria? Real or perceived we have to do something. There are children at Lowell Point. This isn’t new. This happens in other places.”

To this remark, Leman said, he had gone out with his daughter Sunday night and didn’t smell anything out at Lowell Point.

“We did smell it when we got by the SeaLife Center,” said Leman. “I’m not saying it isn’t possible, just that I didn’t smell it on that night at that time.”

Conversation moved to what is actually causing the smell. Leman said to get rid of the smell, you would first have to find out what is making the air smell. It could be a combination of gases such as carbon, ammonia, methane or hydrogen sulfide, he said.

“Can’t you test for those gases,” asked Councilman Butts? “What is it? Is it harmful? There may be something else. I don’t believe this is just hydrogen sulfide.”

Leman said it probably wasn’t necessary because you don’t need to test for carbon dioxide or oxygen and the equipment is currently showing a reading of “non-detect” for hydrogen sulfide, though it was revealed that the testing equipment is not completely outside, rather, it is housed in a unit with the doors open because the equipment installer was worried about rain damage, said Casey.

“What you are likely smelling are sulphur compounds, so you could start there,” said Leman.

But, what can be done right now, asked Councilwoman Casagranda.

Casey said he would investigate higher dosing of calcium nitrate and look into aerators.

“We really are doing all we can,” said Casey.

The entire work session lasted more than two hours and covered a lot of ground. Seward resident and environmental toxicologist gave Leman a run for his money with a master class in biology as French expressed concern that not enough is known about what is going on in the lagoon aerobically and anerobically.

No specific solutions were offered but the council and residents did have a chance to ask the engineer the city relies on how the lagoon problem got to this point of dysfunction and what can be done to salvage businesses and reduce health risk. Leman said the DEC’s decision not to allow the city a bypass waiver to make sludge removal less expensive was a political decision.

Toward the end of the meeting, frustrated Lowell Point resident Lynda Paquette said there was an elephant in the room called “that attorney we don’t have yet.”

“What I’m hearing is that I pretty much can’t take reservations for May or June,” said Paquette. She asked the council to consider the cost of speeding up the dredging process versus the loss being sustained by Lowell Point residents.

Another Lowell Point business owner, John Page, told the council he needs some assurance that next summer the smell will be gone because he doesn’t know if he can keep his returning staff.

“I do feel some support from the council,” said Page. “I know it’s not pleasant for any of us.”

At this time, Leman and Casey and city management have been asked to negotiate with the contractor in a way that might speed up the process. The results of a seven day air quality testing period should be ready this week and they will be reviewed by council. In addition, the council asked the city manager to put the lagoon issue in every city manager’s report for every council meeting.


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