KETCHIKAN - Pat Jirschele's beach-front home often is filled with the putrid smell of dead fish - waste from the five local fish processing plants.
But new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules to crack down on the waste dumped into the sea by the 250 fish processing plants statewide may offer some relief.
The rules affect onshore, near-shore and offshore plants such as factory trawlers.
They follow an EPA enforcement push against Alaska fish plants that has resulted in five cannery owners - including owners of four plants in Ketchikan - facing $682,000 in fines for alleged pollution violations in recent years.
The problem lies on the seabed where fish heads, guts and slime discharged from processors are ground up and piped out.
In the absence of strong tides and currents, the fish piles rot, deplete oxygen and sometimes burp, often spewing fumes through nearby towns.
Decomposing fish debris also washes up on people's waterfront yards in Ketchikan, according to residents and regulators.
"It's really disgusting and it's a health hazard. If you have a cut on your hand and this stuff gets into it, it's bad news," said Eric Hummel, a local environmental activist.
Under the new EPA permit, seafood plants can no longer dump more than 10 million pounds of waste annually unless they barge the excess amount to sea, grind it into fish meal, or find some other way to get rid of it, said Burney Hill of the EPA in Seattle.
If they can demonstrate that their waste pile covers no more than one acre, they can get a waiver to the 10 million-pound limit.
The new regulations also restrict where fish waste can be discharged.
Critical habitat for a threatened sea duck, the Steller's eider, is off-limits. Small bays and other types of waterbodies also are excluded.
"They're tightening the screws," said Terry Gardiner, president of NorQuest Seafoods, which has a plant in Ketchikan. "We're hoping that the studies will show that their concerns are not justified."
Gardiner and other processors question whether fish waste, while smelly, really degrades the marine environment.
The EPA and the state Department of Environmental Conservation are studying the fish waste problem in Ketchikan this summer, said Stephanie Madsen, vice president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association.
It is doubtful the new permits will completely clear the air for some local residents, but at least there's growing recognition of the problem, Hummel said.
For Jirschele, who lives on Pennock Island, relief can't come soon enough.
"You have to do something about this. We can't live like this anymore," he told state and federal representatives at a recent meeting.
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