Sewage 'treatment' threatens belugas

Alan Boraas

Clear, clean water from Eklutna Lake and the headwaters of Ship Creek are pumped into Anchorage homes and businesses where it is transformed into sewage and then pumped, with minimal treatment, into the newly designated critical habitat area of Cook Inlet's endangered beluga whales.

Every day, every one of you flush your toilet with "the brown flush." Approximately 200,000 times a day that brown flush is sent on its way to be mixed with other wastewater at the John M. Asplund Wastewater Treatment Facility at Point Woronzof. Goodness knows what else you put down your toilets or flush down your sinks.

The antiquated Asplund plant was built in 1972 and is a primary treatment facility. Primary treatment is wastewater-speak for skimming off the oil, grease and floaters, scraping the heavy sludge from the bottom, and pumping the rest out an 800-foot-long pipe directly into Cook Inlet.

According to Toby Smith of the Alaska Center for the Environment writing in the online Alaska Dispatch, a ton of chlorine is added every day: good for the smell, bad for the fish. And, Smith says, polymer treatments are done. But that does not remove suspended solids or toxic chemicals. Polymer treatments were found by the courts to be largely ineffectual in Cape Cod Bay and Boston had to get rid of its antiquated primary treatment plant.

The primary treatment system is not much improved from ancient Rome, which directed its wastewater through the sewers of the Cloacae Maxima into the Tiber River.

What you folks in Anchorage do with your sewage would be illegal anywhere else in the United States. But the Environmental Protection Agency has granted you years of waivers based on a 301(h) permit exempting Anchorage of pertinent provisions of the Clean Water Act. The basis of the exemption is that Upper Cook Inlet is already turbid from glacial silt and a little suspended fecal matter churned up by the tides won't make much difference.

But it's not just a little. The Asplund facility pumps 32 million gallons of sewage into Cook Inlet every day. Imagine over half a million 55-gallon drums of watery fecal matter lined up on the Park Strip then unceremoniously dumped into Cook Inlet after the floaters and oils are skimmed off. The next day the barrels are filled again, and again they are dumped into the beluga whale critical habitat area. And the next, and the next ... over 11 billion gallons a year, year after year.

Think about that next time you flush your toilet. You might as well use one of those old cannery-style outhouses suspended over the Inlet.

The question is whether or not pumping partially treated sewage makes a difference in the natural environment, and the issue centers on the beluga. The reasons the beluga whale population has plummeted from 1,300 in 1979 to 375 today are, of course, complex. Urban Native hunters and the oil platforms in the Inlet are the most attractive targets. But the National Board of Fisheries cautiously yet clearly implicates Anchorage's fecal matter as a significant issue in the beluga's population decline.

Belugas range widely but concentrate as dense pods in small areas particularly in the summer months when they feed first on hooligan and then the kings to silvers sequence of salmon runs. Upper Cook Inlet has a bathymetry that maximizes hunting skills of the beluga as they feed on fish making it a critical habitat area. It's also the area into which Anchorage pumps its sewage.

There is little evidence to date that Cook Inlet belugas' precipitous decline is due to polyvinyl chlorides, heavy metals or other nasty pollutants associated with industrial activity. A major concern of the National Marine Fisheries (NMF) is untreated household waste which may include endocrine disrupters and prions (proteins that may cause infection) found in what the NMF calls "biosolids."

According to the NMF, Kenai, Palmer, Soldotna, and Homer treat their wastewater to secondary standards using biological methods to decompose waste before it is returned to the natural environment. Eagle River and Girdwood sewage treatment facilities are capable of tertiary treatment rendering wastewater to almost drinkable quality. Anchorage stands alone as the city most befouling Cook Inlet. Its time to get your biosolids together before the T-shirts appear: "Save the whales, stop flushing Anchorage toilets" and build a secondary or tertiary treatment facility.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.

Alan Boraas