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

By Fern Greenbank
LOG Editor 

City to ask for help with sewage smell


For the second time in a week, a special session was called by the Seward City Council to delve into the odor problem caused by Seward’s sewage lagoon located in Lowell Point.

Monday night’s meeting was called specifically to give the city administration a directive to hire a new consultant to help stop the odor caused by hydrogen sulfide emissions from the lagoon, a problem decades in the making and the topic of a year-long increasingly emotional problem for Lowell Point residents, the city council and city administration.

Councilwoman Ristine Casagranda asked for the special meeting, along with Councilwoman Iris Darling, because she didn’t feel satisfied with the status of the problem after the council work session the week before. During scheduled work sessions, council members cannot take action. A special called meeting is required to give specific instructions to city administration.

Casagranda said she called for the meeting because some residents of Lowell Point, and herself, did not feel enough calcium nitrate was on hand and ordered to address the extreme smell situation. She said after calling for the special meeting, another 2,000 pounds of calcium nitrate was ordered.

“After the work session, it was agreed that W.C. Casey and Loren Leman would do some research about calcium nitrate dosing,” said Casagranda. “I waited all week because I didn’t want to be annoying, and then I called and found there was only 60 pounds of calcium nitrate on hand with more on the way. It just felt to me that we did not have control of the situation and needed to take action. It still reeks out there and we ordered the same amount of calcium nitrate as we did a month ago and it was just repeating itself.”

Casagranda said she agrees with the other council members that they should not do anything to unnecessarily prolong the process underway because that will just jeopardize the tourist season next year for Lowell Point businesses.

In the packet submitted to the council for the special called meeting, documentation showed that the consulting firm of M.L. Foster and Associates in Eagle River was paid more than $205,000 between 2008 and 2014 for wastewater consulting services by engineer Loren Leman. In 2013, the city was issued a notice of violation by the Department of Environmental Conservation related to the Seward sewage lagoon at Lowell Point. The consulting firm produced the city’s treatment facility plan in 2012, the Lowell Point Quality Assurance Plan in 2011, a wastewater system evaluation in 2010, a wastewater facilities operation and maintenance plan and assisted with the re-permitting of the Lowell Point sewage facility and the Seward Marine Industrial Center facility.

Casagranda submitted to the council a list of suggested criteria for administrative direction. When considering a new consultant to remediate the lagoon odor in Lowell Point, Casagranda suggested choosing a vendor that was not previously affiliated with staff, council or administration. The list also suggested hiring a vendor that could start immediately and continue with an odor remediation plan until the sludge removal process is complete. The low bidder for the lagoon sludge removal, Merrell Brothers, has not yet signed a contract with the city but a financial package is expected to come before the council on Sept. 8 to finalize the contract.

Included in the special meeting packet was a statement provided by Assistant City Manager Ron Long regarding the rationale and context for the retention of M.L. Foster and Associates. Long said the decision was made to sole source the sludge removal and disposal project to M.L. Foster and Associates because they are familiar with Seward’s facility and the city’s problems with odor and permit compliance. The contract with M.L. Foster and Associates included an amendment to cover work related to ongoing issues, including a Notice of Violation at the Lowell Point Wastewater Treatment Facility, said Long. Because of the violation notice and the urgent need to remove sludge and refurbish parts of the lagoon, he felt the hiring of a consultant was necessary quickly.

“Because of his involvement with the Lowell Point Wastewater Treatment Facility over the course of the past five plus years, I felt that he [Loren Leman] would be the best qualified and most expedient at ensuring the needs of the City of Seward were met,” wrote Long. “A purchase order for $45,000 was requested to retain their services.” The purchase order was approved in February 2014.

Casagranda said the purpose of the meeting was not to debate the merits of the consulting firm. Rather, she wanted the documentation included in the packet for the council to see how much money has been spent on advice and compare that with the current status of the problem. She said she was responding to constituent concerns about speed and expertise.

Not all council members were happy about the special called meeting.

“I am sympathetic to the problem, but I want it fixed right,” said Councilman Dave Squires. “I don’t want to study it to death. I was not thrilled about the special meeting. I’d rather spend money on getting something done.”

Squires told the residents present that previous councils may not have followed through but this is a progressive council.

“I want to say that our word is our bond,” said Squires.

When given an opportunity to make comments at the end of the meeting, Councilwoman Casagranda directly addressed Squires’ comments because she was responsible for the called meeting.

“It is not being studied to death,” said Casagranda. “We knew it would stink. We were not ready. I think the people of Lowell Point deserved a special meeting. I’m sorry you were disappointed. I thought we could get more done in one hour than we could in 10 minutes in a regular meeting.”

The concern expressed by multiple parties was the potentially damaging delay to the sludge removal process if a new consultant was hired, which would require the administration to come back to council for approval before activity could begin. Lowell Point residents are asking that the process start as soon as possible because their tourism based businesses start up April 1 and the contract language allows the contractor a window of performance and completion as late as June 1.

Several potential vendors that specialize in sewage lagoon odor were presented to council, and there is nothing that prohibits administration from consulting with experts and reviewing current literature on the subject. City Manager Jim Hunt clarified the policy that gives the manager authority to authorize expenditures under $50,000 without having to get council approval and this could allow the manager to fund some consultation specifically about odor control now and when the sludge removal starts, which is expected to cause an increase in the odor.

Councilwoman Iris Darling said she has been spending a lot of time speaking with experts and it has become clear, at least to her, that options exist to tackle the odor head on now without having to wait until sludge removal begins.

“We need to get somebody who really knows about this,” said Darling.

The council discussion about hiring another consultant comes just one week after consulting engineer Loren Leman was asked dozens of questions at a special called meeting Monday, Aug. 18. At that time, Leman did not offer new or urgent measures the council could take to remediate the hydrogen sulfide emissions, which experts say is the predominant and assumed cause of the odor, not due to other gases that result from a lagoon that has been rendered anaerobic. The anaerobic conditions that cause the odor is a result of delayed dredging of sludge beyond the recommended 7-10 years. It has been 23 years since the sewage lagoon has been dredged so repairs could be made to a drained lagoon.

Also present at the work session was Seward Public Works Director W.C. Casey, who again told the council he is working night and day to address this difficult and complicated problem. He said there is a danger of raising the pH levels by using too much calcium nitrate, the agent that experts say can reduce the odor. If the pH levels get too high, said Casey, the city would be out of compliance with its permit and he is trying to avoid that happening.

“I hope you don’t give up on me,” said Casey. “I don’t want to jeopardize discussions with the contractor. I hope you understand my concern. We are being aggressive but with caution. We are working really hard.”

City Manager Jim Hunt told council it has come to his attention in the past week that a potential “illegal sewage dumper” has been reported, though he did not name the suspected culprit. The dumping is apparently taking place in the Forest Acres area. The police have been contacted and it is hoped the dumping will be resolved this week, he said.

Assistant City Manager Ron Hunt cautioned council that a lot of people are “coming out of the woodwork” with products to sell, claiming they can reduce the odor immediately.

“We need to continue conversation with the contractor and we hope to have that contract to you by Sept. 8 and if you want a special meeting before then, that’s okay, too,” said Long.

In the intervening week between the last special called meeting and Monday’s meeting, it was learned that Merrell Bros., the low bidder on the sludge removal request for proposals, has experts and equipment available to tackle the odor problem, so the council ultimately decided to add odor remediation to the scope of work on the table for the new contractor.

Mayor Jean Bardarson said her research led to information about sewage lagoons in North Pole and other communities that have used the services of Merrell Bros. and have not had the problems Seward is having.

Public Works Director Casey also said he has sought the expertise of an expert from the Alaska Rural Water program who has been giving them “sage” advice.

The primary consultant on the lagoon problem, Loren Leman, addressed council and the audience Monday night.

“After talk of a new consultant I was thinking that maybe you didn’t need me,” said Leman. “But I have talked to Merrell Bros. and I specifically addressed three things mentioned at the last meeting.”

First, Leman said the potential contractor said it deals with odor mitigation all the time. He said they would probably use selected equipment designed for mitigating odors.

“They said just continue to use aerators. They said the smell is a result of organic overload,” reported Leman.

Next, Leman talked to the contractor about techniques they would use to avoid damage like tearing the liner, an issue brought up at last week’s special session.

“They said they would not tear the liner, but if they did, they would fix it,” said Leman.

And the third thing Leman discussed with the contractor scheduled to do the sludge work was how their schedule could be sped up.

“I encouraged Dustin Smith [with Merrell Bros.] to come to the council meeting Sept. 8 because they can tell you many things that have to be in place to speed things up,” said Leman.

The Lowell Point residents present at the special called meeting took their opportunity to address council with ongoing concerns, though the tone of the residents has been more hopeful since the flurry of activity to address the odor began in earnest in the past month.

“I am pleased to see the council is interested in pursuing this problem but we need it done prior to spring,” said business owner John Page. “You don’t often think of Lowell Point as a tourist attraction but I had 2,000 people kayak this year. There are a lot of people doing that, too. There are six B&Bs, two campgrounds, a lodge, 40 rooms, RV space and campsites, so you see the picture.”

Page pointed to the hundreds of people who hike and walk the beaches at Lowell Point. He repeated the concern he expressed a week ago, that his employees won’t return if the smell is not gone when he gears up in April.

“If Lowell Point is viewed as stench, it reflects on Seward tourism,” he added. “But I am encouraged tonight and encourage you to get faster remediation. I don’t want to have to worry about this.”

Lowell Point’s Sue Lang had a dramatic indicator to report for her business.

“The Silver Derby Campground has one reservation for March 2015,” she said.

Lowell Point resident Lynda Paquette reviewed the events that led up to the current attention to the lagoon stench. She said the problem started last spring and they started calling administration. In the fall, some residents contacted the borough and were encouraged to call the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

“At first, there was resistance to even buy in to listening to us,” said Paquette. “Some say they {Lowell Point residents] shouldn’t even use the library. Some have made us feel unwelcome. One of the best things that happened is Councilman Dale Butts gave us his phone number and that was the start of working together.”

Lowell Point resident Tom Miller, owner of Miller’s Landing, said he lives right beside “the thing” and it’s “awful.”

Despite the fact that the topic for the meeting was hiring a consultant to advise on odor remediation now and when the sludge removal begins, the council did not give administration that directive. It was decided to add a directive to Merrell Bros., the expected contractor for the sludge removal at SMIC and the Seward sewage lagoon at Lowell Point. The added directive relates to remediation of the odor problem throughout the sludge removal process.

“It became apparent with more research that Merrell Bros. has highly qualified personnel to deal with odor problems,” said Casagranda.

Assistant City Manager Ron Long said the new directive will most likely increase the cost of the contract with Merrell Bros. He expects to have a proposed funding package prepared for the city council to consider at the Sept. 8 meeting.

Casagranda said Tuesday that she was pleased with the outcome of the special called meeting.

“I was frowned upon a bit for calling the meeting,” said Casagranda. “But I think the residents of Lowell Point were happy with the direction the council decided to take. I didn’t call for the meeting to blame. I did it because I thought it would help move the process forward faster.”

Casagranda wasn’t the only one feeling optimistic after the special called meeting.

“I finally feel that everybody, well almost everybody, is listening,” said Paquette, founder of ANGELS Care, Alaska. “This is the first time ever I’ve felt we are all on the same page and I thank you for that.”

Paquette, and half a dozen other residents, thanked Sen. Peter Micciche and Rep. Mike Chenault for attending the meeting and for being part of the legislative body that appropriated almost $2 million dollars toward the dredging of the Seward lagoon and the Seward Marine Industrial Center sewage lagoon.


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