Mat Su Pursues Waste Solution

The city of Anchorage and the Matanuska Susitna Borough are wrestling over the problem of disposal of the Borough’s septic waste.  A Borough waste treatment facility could be years away, while Anchorage’s wastewater utility has had its fill of the Borough’s sludge.   Back in the 1980s, the Borough did construct a waste treatment facility, in Houston, but the state shut it down due to groundwater impacts.  Since then, pump trucks have hauled Valley septic sludge to an Anchorage facility, and that’s not a solution, according to Helen Munoz.

Munoz is a dimunitive woman with an energy level that belies her 84 years. She’s at a local Palmer coffee shop, discussing one of the passions of her life : septic sludge and how to deal with it.

“Look at what we are doing to the ocean,  look at what we are doing to the ocean, look at what we are doing to Cook Inlet. Give me a break! Are people blind”

Munoz says too much human waste is going into Cook Inlet.   Munoz, who’s son still runs the family’s A1 Septic, has been in a decidedly unsexy business since her family moved to the Valley from  New York in the early 1970s. She says since that time, the Borough has built new schools, roads, not to mention thousands of houses to meet a growing population demand, yet has neglected one basic human need.. waste disposal.

“You don’t build a house and ask to use your neighbor’s bathroom for the rest of your life.”

Mat Su has no Borough -wide sewer system, although the cities of Palmer and Wasilla have their own sewers and treatment plants. Most residences in the Borough have septic tanks, which must be pumped out every year, or two. And the septic sludge, as it is called, is hauled to Anchorage in pumper trucks for treatment at municipal facilities.

Mike Campfield, an environmental engineer with the Borough, along with Munoz, is a member of the Borough’s wastewater and sewer advisory board.

“One of the projects that is at the top of our list of priorities is to develop a septage and leachate treatment facility. The board in the past has recommended that the Borough Assembly pursue funding in the form of both a grant and a DEC backed loan, ” he says.

In December, the advisory board approved a  Borough Assembly resolution authorizing the Borough to ask for a $22 million loan from the state Department of Environmental Conservation for design and construction of a sewage treatment plant in the Borough. Campfield says, there is still a long way to go on the project. But the arrangement the Borough has with Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility may be coming to an end. Brett Jokela is AWWUs’s general manager.

“We don’t have any deadline, we’re not going to turn them off. But on the other hand, we are not in control of the timeline for reauthorization of our permit, either,”  Jokela says. 
Jokela says the utility’s board wants to halt taking septage from the Valley. He says that decision is driven in part by the status of the utility’s EPA permit.

 “We have a permit that was issued under a special authorization of the Clean Water Act section 301 H.  And section 301 H of the Clean Water Act allows for modification of the permits to provide for discharge of wastewater that has been treated to a primary degree, as opposed to a secondary degree.”

The EPA permit is up for reconsideration, normally a five year process, although there is no final determination yet.  Anchorage is one of a handful of cities with a water treatment waiver from the federal agency. The city’s largest plant, the Asplund plant at Point Woronzoff , must meet nine conditions that control toxicity to protect the marine environment. Jokela says the treated septage does not harm Cook Inlet’s waters.

“Once the discharge is mixed into the receiving water, it is essentially lost to our ability to detect it.”

Yet, the Valley septage is not in the best interests of the city, he admits, since it’s volume may jeopardize Anchorage’s permit, and that could cause expensive upgrades.

AWWU accepts about ten million gallons of septage a year from the Valley, about 45 thousand gallons a day during summer months when most people get their septic tanks pumped. AWWU charges pumper trucks $22 for a thousand gallons, and that cost is passed on to the consumer

 Meanwhile, the Borough is making progress toward getting it’s own facility. Mike Campfield says two possible sites are being evaluated at present, and he expects a decision by April.  And that’s good news for Helen Munoz, who has peppered the Borough Assembly for years with her comments in support of a Borough sewage plant.

 “And I’m still the loud voice. I’m looking for the future, and nobody seems to care.. when they flush the toilet,  they don’t care. “

Borough studies have determined that it is most economical to construct a facility would also treat fluids that leach from the local landfill.