The city is facing a $60,000 federal fine for dumping raw or partially treated sewage into the Mendenhall River and Gastineau Channel in 1999.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed a complaint against the city Friday for violating the Clean Water Act and ordered local officials to come up with a plan for corrective action at the Mendenhall Valley Sewage Treatment Plant.
In its complaint, the EPA said the city's own reporting of fecal coliform levels in effluent discharges from the plant showed violations in June, September and November of 1999.
On Nov. 1, the fecal coliform count for the day was 3.5 million colonies per 100 milliliters, compared to the regulation of 800 colonies. That was during a torrential downpour that flooded the sewer system with stormwater and, according to EPA, also sent untreated sewage into a drainage ditch that connects to Gastineau Channel. Fecal coliform indicates the presence of bacteria, viruses and parasites that can cause a variety of maladies, including kidney failure.
In addition, raw sewage flowed into homes, the ditch to Gastineau Channel and a parking lot on Aug. 29, 1999, "as a result of (the city's) failure to properly operate and maintain the facility," according to the complaint. A power outage led to a plant shutdown, resulting in sewage backup in several valley homes, dislocating families. The EPA also said the city failed to report the incident within 24 hours, as its permit requires.
"There's no excuse for a city the size of Juneau to have sewage problems like these," said Marcia Combes, director of EPA's Alaska office in Anchorage, in a written statement Monday. "The fixes are affordable and clearly necessary in order to protect public health."
Tony Reiger, a hunter who heads the Mendenhall Wetlands Citizens Advisory Group, applauded the EPA's enforcement action.
"I guess my first reaction is, what took so long?" Reiger said today. "I welcome the EPA finally getting off the dime and doing something. We have an areawide, serious sewer problem in this community. ... I hope they keep fining them."
Juneau Assembly member Dwight Perkins also was struck by the timing of the fine. "I'm actually puzzled, inasmuch as I didn't know it was coming down. ... It kind of came out of the blue, this fine."
Bub Loiselle of the EPA's Seattle office said the lag time isn't unusual. "It's not uncommon to take quite a while to put together your case."
Aside from the Aug. 29, 1999, incident with sewage backing up in homes, Perkins said he has never been told of any plant discharges that have exceeded federal regulations on fecal coliform. If they have taken place, "Somebody needs to be reprimanded," he said this morning.
City Manager Dave Palmer said EPA previously had not ordered the city to take corrective measures or expressed any health-related concern, and isn't working with the city on changes at the plant.
"There's not a public health hazard out there," Palmer said. "We're probably more interested than EPA in doing things right. ... We've fixed whatever was wrong."
Ernie Mueller, director of public works for the city, said more than $1 million has been spent on modifications to the sewage plant since the incidents last year. A new computerized alarm system addresses the problem with power outages, and new "state-of-the-art decanters" are ensuring proper chlorine-contact and disinfection, he said.
Mueller said he's checking the city's long-distance telephone records but recalls two telephone calls to EPA the day following the sewage backup. He said he wasn't sure if EPA had been notified of the new equipment that has been installed at the Mendenhall plant. Palmer said that EPA is preventing the city from installing "a fail-safe pipe" that would divert sewage into the river before it backed up into homes.
Mueller, a 15-year municipal employee, said this is the first time during his tenure that a state or federal fine has been proposed for operations in the wastewater treatment system. However, state and federal regulators have expressed alarm about the discharges from the Bonnie Brae Subdivision in North Douglas onto tidal flats.
The city has 30 days to respond to the EPA complaint to avoid a judgment being entered by default. Based upon the city's response, EPA would "negotiate what we think is a reasonable settlement," Loiselle said. The city also has the right to a formal hearing with an administrative law judge.
Reiger, who has filed a lawsuit over the Bonnie Brae discharges, said he has tried talking to city officials "ad nauseum," but to no avail. "Everybody knows what's going on. ... I really do think it's a shame that some of us have to bring lawsuits and jump up and down."