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Skagway's wastewater gets federal attention

City hopes new treatment plant allays EPA concerns

Posted: December 1, 2011 - 1:11am

Skagway, with a population of 900 year-round residents, has found itself on a no-longer-secret Environmental Protection Agency watch list, one of two Alaska communities the federal agency fears may be at risk of violating the Clean Water Act.

National Public Radio revealed the existence of the list recently, and EPA this week made the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and hazardous waste lists public.

Skagway was surprised to find itself on the list, said city manager Tom Smith.

“As far as I know we have pretty good relations with the EPA,” Smith said.

EPA’s interest in the city, however, comes as no surprise, he said, given its long difficulty in getting proper treatment for its wastewater.

“It’s been no secret that EPA has been concerned about us and watching us closely for a number of years,” Smith said.

The other Alaska community on the Clean Water Act watch list is Unalaska in the Aleutians, which has had a long and public battle with the federal agency, including lawsuits and legislative hearings last year.

Other entries on the watch list in the Lower 48 include more obvious candidates such as big petroleum, chemical or food processing plants, along with other municipal wastewater plants.

The EPA watch lists were created in 2004 under former President George Bush, reported National Public Radio, which obtained a recent list through the federal Freedom of Information Act. The EPA made the lists public after that.

“Some of the facilities in the list likely are the ‘worst-of-the-worst’ polluters, but others may be breaking the rules in ways that do not pose significant risks for human health or the environment,” Grant Nakayama, who headed EPA enforcement under Bush, told NPR.

Keeping the list secret avoided tipping offenders off they were being criminally investigated and enabling them to game the system, he said.

Smith said he doubted the EPA suspects Skagway of that, and pointed out the EPA has contributed $300,000 to the municipality’s ongoing upgrade project.

“I know they’ve been concerned about us getting our wastewater plant upgraded, but, like I said, we’re doing that right now,” Smith said.

Smith said that while Skagway has only 900 year-round residents, the population jumps to more than 2,000 in the spring when retail workers and tourist industry managers arrive, and then gets about a million visitors.

On high cruise ship days, there could be 14,000 visitors in town, he said. And that doesn’t count the crews, a portion of which get time off in each port city, he said.

“It’s ‘don’t all flush the toilet at the same time,’” he joked.

The new treatment plant scheduled for completion in March should address the EPA concerns, he said.

“It will be able to provide more capacity, and a higher level of treatment,” Smith said.

In addition to the EPA’s help, Smith said the $6 million price would be covered by state grants, of $2.5 million and $800,000, a federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act loan of $1.5 million which is 90 percent forgivable, and the city’s own contributions.

EPA and other inspectors have been watching Skagway’s efforts and seem pleased with the progress, he said.

Smith said he hopes that will keep Skagway off any EPA watch list, even if the city didn’t know it was on one in the first place.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or at patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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