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Big winner in Unalaska's EPA wastewater tussle? Lawyers.

  • Author: Jim Paulin
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published October 21, 2012

The city of Unalaska paid more than a half-million dollars in legal fees fighting the federal lawsuit requiring the construction of a new sewage treatment plant, water treatment plant and the towering new leachate tank on Summers Bay Road adjacent to the landfill.

The city released the legal expenditures last week in response to a written request from the Bristol Bay Times – Dutch Harbor Fisherman, under the terms of the Alaska Public Records Act.

The city paid two law firms a total of $525,000. The city's regular Anchorage law firm, Brooks, Chandler, Falconer, earned $133,923.

The larger amount went to the Washington, D.C., firm of Beveridge and Diamond, at $392,033. At a city council meeting earlier this year, city council member Roger Rowland praised city manager Chris Hladick for hiring the D.C. attorneys, saying the move saved the city money compared to the originally proposed fine of about $150 million.

The city instead paid a fine of $340,000 for multiple violations of the federal Clean Water Act, under the terms of a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, representing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The consent decree, which avoids a trial, requires the city to spend tens of millions of dollars on new water and sewer facilities, and will require a steep increase in utility rates paid by property owners. The city council is also considering asking voters to approve a 1 percent increase in the local sales tax.

Across the street from the landfill, a 40-foot-tall water tank will collect runoff from heavy rains, to avoid overwhelming the wastewater plant. The leachate settling tank can hold about five days of foul water runoff, with a capacity of 1.5 million gallons, and is under construction by Alaska Mechanical, Inc. with a $6.5-million contract. The leachate tank project won't be finished until next year.

Construction crews are now preparing to excavate a cliff behind the existing wastewater plant, to create fl at ground for the new plant which will add an additional layer of treatment to wastewater discharged into Unalaska Bay.

A contract for the explosive removal of a cliff for the new sewer plant was awarded to the lowest bidder at $1.4 million by the city council at its Sept. 11 meeting, to Advanced Blasting Services, LLC, of Wasilla.

The contract calls for the excavation, hauling, and removal of 41,500 cubic yards of rock and other overburden material.

The blasting will clear the way for the new chemically enhanced primary treatment plant at the corner of Gilman and Airport Beach roads.

"The hill behind the existing plant will need to be excavated up to 90 feet," according to the city.

Unalaska's city utilities rates should take a sharp turn upwards within two years to pay for new projects. The actual amounts aren't clear yet, but homeowners could end up paying an extra $100 per month for wastewater, landfill and drinking water fees, according to the city's utilities consultant, Mike Hubbard.

Hubbard suggested raising rates sooner rather than later to avoid a "huge rate shock."

The spendiest item is the new wastewater plant, projected to cost about $25 million by the city. Hubbard said monthly wastewater bills could climb from the present average of $66.31 per month, to between $107 and $136 monthly.

The solid waste landfill bill could also double, from the present average of $17.34 monthly.

Water rates should rise, but less dramatically, by around 34 percent.

The total monthly bill for all utilities is now about $251, and is projected to rise to between $308 and $351 depending on financing methods, s aid Hubbard, of the Financial Engineering Company, based in Maine.

The consumer impact of the $50-million bill could be offset with increased sales taxes, consultant Mike Hubbard said at a council meeting this summer. The presentation was called a "high level rate review," based on projections, since the actual costs won't be known until later when the projects are constructed.

"This is going to be shocking," said council member Dennis Robinson, calling for increasing city sales taxes by 1 or 1.5 percent, with the increase specifically earmarked for the construction projects. The city sales tax is currently 3 percent.

Robinson opposed raising property taxes, which he said are not paid by the "huge" transient population which benefits from city services including roads, water, landfill and the airport terminal.

"This is one case where the city of Unalaska and its residents need help," Robinson said.

The new sewage plant will provide an additional level of treatment, known as secondary treatment, a requirement of the consent decree, which avoided a "lengthy and expensive trial" for 4,870 violations of the, Clean Water Act, Hladick wrote in a memo.

"EPA filed the lawsuit, in part, because Unalaska refused to agree to secondary treatment as part of the settlement discussions with EPA on the permit violations. In 1979, EPA adopted a 'special policy' and published a notice in the Federal Register indicating some Alaska villages need not apply for the exemption. Unalaska was included on this list and is currently exempt from secondary treatment. EPA maintains that this "Alaska Village Policy" is a policy directive that can be dispensed with on a case-by-case basis, and is not binding on the agency," Hladick wrote in a memo prepared for the city's annual trip to Washington, D.C.. to lobby for federal money for local projects.

"The required rate increases are extreme," the city manager said. The EPA is mandating three of the four rates-boosting projects. The fourth one, not mandated, is landfill expansion. The three mandated projects are the landfill leachate tank, and the new wastewater and water plants.

The new $12.9-million water plant will provide an additional level of treatment aimed at killing the cryptosporidium parasite that causes severe diarrhea and dehydration, and Hladick said that bug is not a problem locally.

The Aleutian region's likely new state representative Bob Herron sympathized with the city's situation, characterizing the EPA requirements as outrageous, during a visit to Unalaska this summer. Herron, D-Bethel, is running unopposed for the newly redistricted seat in the legislature.

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