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Photos: Inside Anchorage's sewage treatment plant

The John M. Asplund Wastewater Treatment Facility serves Anchorage, treating up to 50 million gallons of water per day. June 13, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
The John M. Asplund Wastewater Treatment Facility serves Anchorage, treating up to 50 million gallons of water per day. June 13, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Jeff Axmann, operations foreman at Anchorage's John M. Asplund Wastewater Treatment Facility, showing off screens that remove grit from wastewater. Grit is anything larger than the screen. June 13, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Tools inside the John M. Asplund Wastewater Treatment Facility. June 13, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
A settling pond, one of six in the John M. Asplund Wastewater Treatment Facility. Solid waste settles out and is eventually burned. June 13, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Pipes move waste and other materials under the John M. Asplund Wastewater Treatment Facility in Anchorage. June 13, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Solid waste, with most of it's water removed, heads down a conveyor belt to the combustion chamber where it will be burned at 1500 degrees fahrenheit. June 13, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Solid waste burning inside the combustion chamber at the Anchorage wastewater treatment plant. June 13, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Treated water is tested for its chlorine content as it leaves the facility, emptying into Cook Inlet. Treated water has about half of the solid waste removed, and added chlorine. June 13, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Treated water empties into a sink in the testing room of the John M. Asplund Wastewater Treatment Facility in Anchorage. June 13, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Treated water leaving the John M. Asplund Wastewater Treatment Facility. It is discharged into Cook Inlet, where it quickly mixes with seawater. June 13, 2013
Loren Holmes photo
Sean Doogan

In Alaska's largest city, federal regulators are considering whether the town's water treatment plant will need upgrades, in part to comply with the endangered listing of the Cook Inlet beluga whale population.

The Clean Water Act of 1972 requires sewage-treatment plants to remove more than 90 percent of dissolved solids and most of the oxygen-depleting organics. Compounds such as nitrogen and phosphorous are also removed. But Anchorage's treatment plant doesn't have to meet that standard.The city has been operating with a waiver that has been receiving a series of temporary administrative extensions. Upgrading or replacing the main Anchorage plant to bring it up to the level of most U.S. cities could cost as much as $800 million.

As it is, Anchorage is one of only a few dozen sewage treatment plants in the U.S. to get such a waiver, allowing it to dump effluent with only primary treatment into local waters. But almost five years ago the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife listed Cook Inlet beluga whales as endangered. Since then, Anchorage officials have wrestled with how the listing might impact development, including its wastewater treatment.

Read more: Will feds grant Anchorage another sewage-treatment waiver?