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Wastewater woes: Valley moves toward home-grown septage plant

Zaz Hollander
Erik Hill

PALMER -- Every day, 50,000 gallons of sludge sucked from the septic tanks of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough rumbles into Anchorage in the bellies of pumper trucks.

Without a treatment plant of its own, the Mat-Su exports more than 18 million gallons of septic sludge and landfill ooze each year to the city's main wastewater facility at Point Woronzof.

They roll down the Glenn Highway, those trucks with the funny names. A Full Moon Septic. Royal Flush. The Turdinator.

But things are about to get serious for the Valley's growing waste flow.

Anchorage Water and Wastewater Utility officials now say they expect the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will pressure them to limit outside supplies of waste like those deliveries from the Valley.

It's time for the Mat-Su to get moving on a treatment plant all its own, municipal leaders warned borough managers last fall.

"We let them know this is something we're really concerned about," said Brett Jokela, AWWU's general manager. "We would like to see action on the part of the borough to take that under their own control and be responsible for it."

Mat-Su officials, who have spent the last five years working on evolving waste treatment plant concepts, expect to start looking for property this summer.

The borough formed a Wastewater and Septage Advisory Board in 2011. Its seven members are making slow but steady progress, though they have yet to narrow down a location for the plant, much less exactly how much the whole thing is going to end up costing -- and who's going to foot the bill.


Dealing with the stinky muck that's sucked from septic tanks -- a semi-solid brew of grit and feces known as "septage" -- is a growing problem for places like the Mat-Su where residents live outside of cities.

Most of the Valley's nearly 96,000 residents rely on septic tanks rather than municipal sewers, which are only available to residents in Wasilla, Palmer and Talkeetna. An estimated 80,000 people are on septic systems, a number roughly equal to the population of a small city like Bellingham, Washington. Collectively, people on septic systems in the Valley discharge 4 million gallons of sewage to the groundwater, according to a state estimate.

"This is one of the biggest problems facing the borough," said Oran Woolley, a Wasilla-based wastewater engineer with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

And the Valley is only growing.

The Mat-Su population is expected to triple from its 2010 census level to nearly 235,000 by 2040 under at least one analysis. A consultant earlier this year estimated that 45,000 more people could show up by 2060 if a bridge is built across Knik Arm, though another consultant has suggested "pocket" sewage treatment plants to handle waste at different town sites from Settlers Bay to Big Lake, a concept favored by some elected officials.

Septic sludge isn't the only Mat-Su import to the Anchorage treatment plant.

The borough landfill between Palmer and Wasilla also generates about 1.5 million gallons of leachate, the liquid that seeps out of garbage. That number goes up with a lot of rain or snow, said Terry Dolan, the borough's public works director. It's also going up with the population.

"The problem, of course, is that the borough continues to grow," Dolan said. "The volume of leachate grows as the landfill grows along with the borough, and at some point the Anchorage muni won't be able to treat that for us."


Anchorage's main wastewater treatment plant is already operating under an unusual federal regulation that allows the municipal utility to discharge effluent into Cook Inlet with much less treatment than most other sewage treatment plants in the country.

Anchorage utility officials say they are urging Mat-Su to treat its own waste because they expect to face growing pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency due to the increasingly rare type of permit under which Anchorage operates.

Very few utilities have the kind of Clean Water Act exemption Anchorage has now. The City of Honolulu just lost its exemption. San Diego is the biggest plant with a similar permit. Anchorage is the next biggest. Then there are only a handful of other smaller plants, in Alaska, California, the Pacific Islands, Maine, Puerto Rico and Massachusetts.

Controlling the sources of wastewater coming to the treatment plant at Point Woronzof is one of the reasons Anchorage can continue to operate with a lower level of treatment.

Jokela said he expects EPA officials will want Anchorage to know more about the contents of septage coming from private haulers.

"We anticipate there will be, if not a mandate, at least some pretty directed encouragement for us to limit the importation of that kind of waste from outside the municipality," he said.

As part of that pending change, Anchorage plant operators worry that the Mat-Su septage could have hazardous materials in it. Testing is very expensive, so AWWU relies on self-reporting, Jokela said.

Discharging hazardous waste isn't allowed, he said, but it's impossible for the plant to tell who might have just "cleaned out somebody's auto body shop grease trap along with the domestic waste in the subdivision."


A borough study showed that building a septage plant in the Valley could cost people on septic tanks the same or even less than they pay now.

Private pumper trucks hauling septage and leachate to an AWWU receiving station on Turpin Street in East Anchorage travel an estimated 500,000 miles a year on the Glenn Highway. Each trip costs Valley haulers more than $230, much of it in travel time, fuel and maintenance.

Sewage hauling companies in the Valley are among the loudest voices for a local facility.

A 2008 report from the borough estimated the annual cost of transporting and dumping septage at $674,000 for haulers -- and that was when the total borough population was about 30 percent smaller than it is now, according to a borough study published last year.

Tom Stoelting, the owner of Alpine Septic in Wasilla and one of seven septage advisory board members, estimated that he makes up to five trips a day driving septage into town in the summer.

"It's frustrating," he said. "It's a lot of wear and tear."

Another person campaigning for a regional facility is Helen Munoz, a transplanted New Yorker who came to Palmer 42 years ago when the borough population hovered below 10,000.

Given the area's continued growth, a local treatment plant is long overdue, as Munoz is fond at pointing out at nearly every Mat-Su Assembly meeting she attends.

"You don't build a house without putting a bathroom in first," she said during an advisory board meeting last week.


Starting in 2009, officials in the Valley began looking into a regional wastewater treatment facility that could take septage but also treat wastewater from Palmer and Wasilla. The borough Wastewater and Septage Advisory Board formed in 2011 to move that along.

Both cities are operating under permitting exemptions because their plants are out compliance due to high levels of nitrogen compounds -- ammonia at Palmer and nitrates at Wasilla -- that can rob nearby waterways of oxygen that plants and fish need.

The cost of building a regional wastewater plant came in at about $130 million, according to a borough wastewater and septage summary released last year. But both cities are moving toward changes to bring them back into compliance, the study says.

So the borough is shifting gears. Instead of a big regional plant to treat the city wastewater and septic sludge, officials will focus on a septage-only facility with an option to also treat landfill effluent, as the advisory board officially decided last week.

A new plant is expected to cost at least $17 million, plus some $750,000 just to buy the land.

Woolley said the cities are dealing with permit issues but their effluent poses no immediate environmental threat. The priority for the borough, he said, is septic tank waste.

The advisory board last year recommended the borough set aside $1.3 million for site selection and land acquisition.

There's a total of $170,000 of borough and state money to spend on site acquisition starting in July, according to Mike Campfield, a borough engineer serving as project manager as work proceeds on a new plant.

The borough advisory board is expected to finalize the criteria for picking a plant site soon, including a parcel no smaller than 40 acres, with well-drained soils and a fairly central location. Then, it's hoped, a spot will be picked this summer.

If the process stays on track -- and funding becomes available -- the Mat-Su could have its own septage treatment plant by 2019.

"It's kind of important to get the land figured out here pretty soon because of how quickly things have been developing," Campfield said. "There's a lot of people living in the woods out here."

Reach Zaz Hollander at or 257-4317.