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Borough takes additional measures as Talkeetna sewer lagoon remains out of compliance

Thursday, September 3, 2015
Pumps installed at the Talkeetna sewer lagoon to introduce more oxygen into the system.  Photo:  Terry Dolan - Mat-Su Borough

Pumps installed at the Talkeetna sewer lagoon to introduce more oxygen into the system. Photo: Mark Cowley – Mat-Su Borough

Citing test results for August that continue to be out of compliance, officials in charge of the Talkeetna sewer system are taking additional steps they hope will improve treatment. KTNA’s Phillip Manning has more:


Last month, KTNA reported that the water flowing out of Talkeetna’s sewage treatment lagoon was outside of compliance for its permit for the amount of fecal coliform present. In August, fecal coliform remains out of compliance, at about five times the allowed level. While high, that number is down from July’s results, which were nearly seven times the permitted limit.


Terry Dolan is the Director of Public Works for the Mat-Su Borough, which oversees the system. He says that, while there has been measurable progress, it hasn’t been enough.


“So what that means is the repairs and the additional work that we’ve done previously this summer are insufficient, at least insufficient to help the lagoons recover fast enough to satisfy me.”


Now, what the borough has begun doing to try to improve the situation is aeration. Dolan says that pumps have been installed in the lagoons that circulate wastewater, and then spray it through the air back into the lagoon. He says that introducing more air into the mix can help break down unwanted bacteria.


“Spraying through the air and the splashing action of the water as it mixes back into the lagoon helps mix additional oxygen into the water. That oxygen helps encourage the growth of bacteria that’s aerobic, and it displaces the bad bacteria that we’re trying to get out of the water in the treatment system.”


What Terry Dolan and his staff do not know yet is whether the aeration will be made permanent. He says the system is designed so that it shouldn’t need artificial means to introduce oxygen, and that it’s possible that the system could stabilize again. They will be waiting on this month’s test results to see what needs to happen next.


“If the September numbers and we’re not satisfied with the progress we’re making, we’re going to more than likely add additional aeration at that point.”


Dolan says it’s clear that, in its current state, the sewer treatment system cannot handle the volume that it receives in the busy summer months. If the system cannot be re-stabilized, then a more permanent solution will be necessary. Funding then becomes the major obstacle if that is the case.


“We haven’t made a decision on that, a long term decision, at this point. Of course, the big challenge with these lagoons is funding. The revenue stream from sewer and water subscribers isn’t really sufficient to do any capital improvements on this.”


The borough has applied for state funds to address the Talkeetna lagoon, but Terry Dolan says the state’s budget woes prevented that. He says there are other options, such as the Alaska Clean Water Fund, and that those options are being explored in case permanent fixes are necessary. Until then, borough staff is hoping that the current measures will make it so that the system can function on its own again.



Talkeetna sewer system exceeds permit limits in July, but borough says progress is being made

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

When the Mat-Su Borough submits July’s fecal coliform measurements for the Talkeetna sewer lagoon, they will be out of compliance with their permit, but the head of the Borough’s Public Works Division says that progress is being made toward bringing that number down.

Back in May, the Mat-Su Borough was issued a notice of violation from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation for missing records for the Talkeetna sewer lagoon. According to both the borough and ADEC, the records were being kept, but were not on the correct form, meaning that some data was not making it into the state’s database. As a result, it appeared as if the records were missing. Now, both the borough and state say that the correct forms have been submitted, and the paperwork violations have been resolved.

Where there are still struggles for Talkeetna’s sewer lagoon is in the treatment of the sewage itself. According to Terry Dolan, Public Works Director for the Mat-Su Borough, the lagoon’s fecal coliform numbers came back at more than seven times the allowed amount when tested last month. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, while fecal coliform is not particularly hazardous on its own, high levels could indicate contamination by other pathogens associated with human waste.

Terry Dolan says that, while the amount of fecal coliform is higher than permit requirements, there has been progress. July’s numbers are close to measurements taken in September of last year.

Terry Dolan says the problems the sewer lagoon is experiencing are the result of a number of issues over time. He says the borough has taken steps this summer to help get the lagoon back into compliance. Those steps include skimming duckweed and grease off of the lagoon’s surface and replanting the wetlands that act as part of the treatment process. Dolan says that duckweed and oils can prevent oxygen transfer, part of the natural process that the lagoon uses to break down fecal coliform and other bacteria. Vegetation can also prevent penetration by ultraviolet light, which is also part of the treatment process.

The Talkeetna sewer lagoon is on a self-reporting system. Samples are taken and tested where the water flows into a slough leading to the Talkeetna River. The results are then sent to ADEC, who control’s the lagoon’s permit. Now that the sampling data is complete and in the correct format, the state is assessing the information, according to ADEC Enforcement Officer Kara Kusche, who wrote the notice of violation to the borough in May. Kusche says that ADEC has a system of escalating enforcement that begins with letters, and then moves to notices of violation. In cases where problems persist, she says further escalation could mean fines or monitored action plans. As of right now, the Talkeetna sewer lagoon has not moved into the more escalated forms of enforcement.

Terry Dolan says the borough is prepared to take more drastic measures to bring the fecal coliform measurements into compliance, potentially including temporary artificial aeration using borrowed equipment from the City of Palmer. He says the ultimate goal is to get the lagoon back to compliance levels in the hope that the system will be able to sustain itself once again once the high levels of bacteria are diminished. Whether or not that step is taken will depend on the measurements taken this month.

Mat-Su Borough election field begins to take shape

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

This October, voters in the Mat-Su Borough will choose their mayor, three school board members, and three assembly members, including the seat that represents the Upper Valley. Thus far, four candidates have registered with the Alaska Public Offices Commission to run for borough office, which allows their campaigns to both receive and spend funds.

Two candidates have registered with the state as candidates for Mayor of the Mat-Su Borough. Larry DeVilbiss, the current mayor, has registered to seek re-election.   Vern Halter, who currently sits on the Mat-Su Borough Assembly representing District 7, has also registered with APOC to run for mayor. Halter is not eligible to run to retain his assembly seat due to term limits.

Willow resident Randall Kowalke has registered to run for the Borough Assembly seat that Halter is vacating. Wasilla resident Robert Doyle has also registered to run for the assembly, although for a different seat.

Three individuals have filed letters of intent with the state, which allows them to receive campaign donations, but not to spend them, and the state does not officially consider them candidates, yet.

Sarah Welton of Wasilla has filed a letter of intent to seek re-election to the Mat-Su School Board. The other two letters of intent, one filed by Erick Giorgiana of Palmer and one with the candidate name “Exploratory,” but filed by Roger Purcell of Houston, do not specify the office they might eventually run for.

While all candidates may currently, the borough’s candidate registration will take place from July 20th through the 31st.  The Mat-Su Borough election will be held on October 6th.

Borough Updates Talkeetna Council on FEMA Funding

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

On Monday night, the Talkeetna Community Council board of directors heard that funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency is likely to be approved soon for repairs to the Yoder Road bridge at Montana Creek and the Talkeetna dike after they were damaged by flooding in September of 2012.

Casey Cook, Emergency Manager for the borough, says that, while FEMA has not officially signed the project worksheets for the two repair projects, that prospects are good.

“Once they get back to their offices and can sign the paperwork and project worksheet, that’ll come back to the state.  The state will say ‘OK’; that’ll come to us, and then we’ll be able to start doing work on that.”

Estimates of the repair costs are over two-million dollars for the training dike downstream from the Talkeetna River railroad bridge and one-point-seven million dollars for Yoder Road.  Casey Cook says those estimates only include returning the structures to their pre-flood state.

“We’ve had an engineer study come in and say how much to repair it, so that’s just the repair.   If FEMA comes in and adds mitigation on to that, it could be in the tens of [millions of dollars] to do that.”

Flood mitigation is a separate funding process.  The Mat-Su Borough will only conduct mitigation work in areas designated as a flood control service area.  Downtown Talkeetna west of the railroad tracks is currently covered by a service area, but East Talkeetna and the River Subdivision are not.  Last fall, the Talkeetna Community Council conducted an advisory vote on pursuing the addition of those areas to the flood control service area.  The vote passed with a margin of forty-eight for and ten against.  Casey Cook says a measure for the Mat-Su Borough Assembly to put the issue on October’s ballot is in the works, when Talkeetna residents will vote again.

“That opens up the door for mitigation, and flood and erosion protection, measures taken via the borough on that side of the railroad tracks, so we’re still moving forward in that regard to be able to protect East Talkeetna, the railroad tracks, and the big, open bowl that is West Talkeetna.”

While it’s not clear exactly when work can begin on the repairs to the Talkeetna dike and Yoder Road bridge, it could be as early as this fall.

Rain Damages MV Susitna’s Engines

Monday, May 18, 2015

KSKA’s Ellen Lockyer provided portions of the audio and script for this piece.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s would-be ferry, MV Susitna, has suffered expensive damage, and now the Borough estimates repairs could cost as much as one million dollars.  The Borough has been trying to sell the vessel for years, and is negotiating with the Federal Transit Administration on the repayment of a twelve million dollar grant.  KTNA’s Phillip Manning has more:

According to the Mat-Su Borough’s Port Director, Marc Van Dongen, rainwater has damaged three of the ferry Susitna’s four engines where it is currently being stored in Ketchikan.   The damage was discovered in February, and seems to have occurred during particularly heavy rains in late January.

“It was over 51/2 inches in one day. And apparently some of that rain went into the exhaust, manifold of the vessel. It went through the exhaust stack down into the manifold, and water went into the cylinders and into three of the four engines.”

When the crew tried to start the Susitna for the regular exercising of the vessel in February, those three engines failed.

The ship has been docked in Ketchikan since 2011, at a cost of 30 thousand dollars a month.  Van Dongen was not specific as to why water was able to seep into the engines.  Borough Manager John Moosey says the vessel has been operating for five years without covers on its vertical smoke stacks without issue, and that it’s not clear why the problem showed up this year.  What is certain is that the insurance estimate on repairs will not be cheap.

“We are working on the estimate.  It’s going to be significant; it’s anywhere from $500,000 to $1,000,000 is what we’re guessing.”

The borough’s policy carries a hefty deductible — 250 thousand dollars.  Marc Van Dongen says tarps now cover the smoke stacks.   He says plans to sell the vessel are proceeding, despite the new chapter in the long saga of the Susitna.

“And we’re still attempting to dispose of the vessel either by transfer or by selling it as is.  We could still claim the insurance money to do the repairs, but that won’t happen until we have a buyer.”

John Moosey says there is no rush for determining what to do next with the MV Susitna.  He says once more information is available, he will take it to the Mat-Su Borough Assembly.

“We’re still in kind of wait and see mode and just examining the situation.  Once that is concluded, I’ll report back to the assembly, because this has sucked up a lot of energy and time.  I know my assembly, as is, has a deep level of frustration.”

Meanwhile, the borough is negotiating with the Federal Transit Administration on twelve million dollars in grants the government agency wants back, because the ferry never went into service.  The assembly held a closed-door executive session on the Susitna earlier this month, and has scheduled another.  For now, Marc Van Dongen says the borough does not have plans to repair the boat.

“It appears that we’re not going to until we have a buyer.  Then, we would negotiate with that buyer on the deductible portion, based on what their offer might be for the vessel.”

Van Dongen says ship brokers in Florida and in Hawaii have contacted the Borough about the ship, as has an individual in Texas.  According to Van Dongern, another individual, a foreign national, has made an offer, but Borough Manager Moosey says there are no offers in writing at this time. The borough would need federal approval to sell the Susitna outside the country.

Borough Does Not Plan to Close Talkeetna Transfer Site

Friday, May 15, 2015

While changes may be coming soon for the Talkeetna Solid Waste Transfer Site, the top borough official in the Public Works Department says the current plans do not include closure.

Currently, the borough solid waste division operates at a significant deficit.  The division is set up as an enterprise fund, which means that it should, in theory, pay for itself.  Since that is not currently happening, Public Works Director Terry Dolan says the Mat-Su Borough Assembly has directed him to look at other options for the transfer sites.

One option being considered at the direction of the assembly is privatization of the sites.  Terry Dolan says that the Solid Waste Division is discussing options with the Talkeetna Community Council, and that the community’s needs have to be taken into account.  He says that’s because the elected members of the borough assembly have final say over any change in the structure of the division.

For now, the Talkeetna Transfer Site will operate the same way it has for years, and while change is coming, it will likely take some time.

Mat-Su Assembly Members Offer Twelve Budget Amendments

Monday, May 11, 2015

After the Mat-Su Borough Assembly’s final public hearing on the borough budget on Thursday, three assembly members submitted a total of twelve proposed amendments.  The first amendment listed is a three percent increase to the borough’s portion of funding for the Mat-Su Borough School District’s operating budget.  The increase amounts to about $1.5 million.  The amendment was submitted by Assembly Member Matthew Beck, who sits on the joint School Board and Borough Assembly committee.  Beck also submitted an amendment re-establishing municipal block grants for the cities of Palmer, Wasilla, and Houston, totaling about $120,000.  Beck’s other two amendments would provide a $90,000 planning grant to the City of Wasilla and transfer $50,000 to the Youth Court program.  All of Assembly Member Beck’s amendments involve relatively small increases to the areawide mill rate.

Assembly Member Dan Mayfield is proposing a handful of amendments around emergency services.  He is proposing an areawide mill rate increase to buy three new ambulances for the borough, to hire three paramedics and five EMTs, to add two Fire Service Area Assistant positions, and to reshuffle the staffing structure in the Mat-Su Central Fire Service Area.

The amendments submitted by Assembly Member Vern Halter, whose district includes the Upper Valley, deal primarily with the borough’s solid waste division.  Halter proposes a small increase to the non-areawide mill rate in order to transfer funds to solid waste and to provide start-up costs and operational support for recycling programs based at borough transfer sites.  Halter is also proposing a $100,000 payment from the Willow Fire Service area toward a loan taken from the borough.

Meetings are currently scheduled for Monday and Wednesday, with a third scheduled for May 20th, if needed.


Mat-Su Borough Preliminary Budget Released

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Mat-Su Borough preliminary budget has been released, and the total figure is slightly smaller than the budget that ends on June 30th.  KTNA’s Phillip Manning has seen the budget, and has this report:

In total, the Fiscal Year 2016 budget comes in at $400,722,754, which is about $4.3 million smaller than last year.  About two-thirds of that money goes toward education.  The rest is divided up in various operating and capital areas for the borough.

Also included is a proposed increase in the areawide mill rate.  At a presentation to the Mat-Su Borough Assembly on Thursday, Borough Manager John Moosey said he has planned for a mill rate increase since early in the budget process, and that an increase, plus a borough-wide increase in property valuation would help bring in more money for the general fund. (more…)

Talkeetna Sewer and Water Rate Increases Proposed

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Mat-Su Borough Manager John Moosey has submitted the administration’s budget proposal for the coming fiscal year.  Included in that proposal is a rate increase for the Talkeetna Sewer and Water System.

Talkeetna Sewer and Water currently has an annual deficit of over $80,000.  Last year, CRW Engineering Group conducted a state-funded study on the health of the system as well as a financial analysis.  The new budget proposal includes the rate increases suggested by that report.

The rate structure for sewer and water customers will not change.  Residential users will be charged a flat fee, and commercial users will be charged a higher flat fee, plus a fee for usage over 8,000 gallons.  As part of last year’s assessment, four alternate water rate structures were proposed.  Terry Dolan, Public Works Director for the borough, says the rates themselves, and not the structure, were the problem.  Additionally, he says that alternatives that involve more comprehensive metering are likely to be met with distrust by local users, since the meters have had a number of issues since their installation.

If the borough follows the recommendations in the financial assessment, this year’s increases will be repeated for the next five years.  The rate hikes amount to 13% per year for water and 6% per year for sewer.  If the changes go into effect without amendment, that means a residential user will pay about $8 more per month than the current rate.  Commercial users’ base rate will increase by just over $10 per month, plus an increase of seventy-nine cents per thousand gallons of water used over 8,000.  If the rate increases continue for five years, as called for in the assessment, commercial and residential users will pay about 60% more for their sewer and water bill than they do today.

The assessment also notes that the proposed rate increases will bring the system close to the operating break-even point, but that there will not be additional funds left over to build a repair and replacement reserve.  In the current budget proposal, Public Works Director Terry Dolan lists the improvements recommended by the assessment among the priorities for his department.