UAB talks sewage sludge options

There’s a barge on the horizon headed for Seattle; its contents ultimately headed for Oregon. With one hand, the city officials watching it leave Juneau hold their noses — with the other, they cross their fingers.

That’s because this barge, like others that regularly leave the city, is carrying the sewage sludge that Juneau hasn’t been able to handle since its incinerator stopped working five years ago. But there is an inherent uncertainty married to disposing of solid waste in this manner, which is why the city’s Utility Advisory Board met Thursday evening to put forward a better solution.

“Sam and I watch the containers leave every day, every week, and we cringe,” city Engineering Director Rorie Watt told the members of the board. Samantha Stoughtenger, the city’s wastewater utility superintendent and the person to whom Watt was referring, also attended Thursday’s meeting. Together, she and Watt are helping the advisory board put together a recommendation for the Assembly to move the city away from barging its waste to the Lower 48.

The board hopes to finalize its recommendation at its next meeting, which is scheduled for Dec. 2. Until then, city staff will be working to develop a draft recommendation for the board to consider, per its request. The board also asked for more details about its options, including replacing the burnt-out incinerator or building a thermal dryer to deal with the sludge.

Replacing the incinerator will cost between $23 million and $36.3 million, depending on where the city builds it. The dryer would cost $18 million.

“Honestly, if we come up with something that gets us off the barge line, I’ll be happy,” Watt told the Empire before the meeting.

According to Stoughtenger, the city sends between nine and 15 containers of sewage sludge south each week. This method of disposal is expensive — costing the city $2.2 million annually — and fraught with risk for the city. That’s why Watt, and everybody else at Thursday’s meeting, are looking for a new way to take care of our biosolid waste.

“When we started shipping, it seemed like a better idea than it currently is,” Watt said before the meeting.

It turns out that having people transport the human waste of an entire city is a surefire way to wear out your welcome. The members of the Utilities Advisory Board — and most other people following the problem — worry that sooner or later shipping will no longer be an option.

“Our recommendation doesn’t have to be, ‘This is it,”’ said Geoff Larson, a board member and co-owner of Alaskan Brewing Co. Larson argued that the board doesn’t have to provide a hard recommendation for the Assembly; it can provide options from which to choose. Whatever it does, it needs to move quickly, though, he said. “Our time crunch is basically the risk of the fear we’re exposed to.”

The risk, in this case, is that one of the entities involved in transporting Juneau’s solid waste, which is a stinky and sometimes-messy process, will decide that it no longer wants to be involved. First, the sludge is barged to Seattle, then it’s put on a train to Oregon. Not surprisingly, nobody seems to be wild about doing this job.

“At the end of the day it’s a pretty tenuous thing that we do, and I don’t think anybody in that chain really wants our business,” Watt said.

And all it will take is for one link in this chain to break to leave the city up the proverbial creek.

“We can recommend the bottle of Vitamin C tablets or the orange tree, but we’ve got scurvy,” he told the members of the board.

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