The City and Borough of Juneau is working to correct violations that occurred at two of its three wastewater treatment facilities between 2015 and 2019, city officials said late last week.
CBJ has entered into a compliance order by consent with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, the state agency that issues permits to protect water quality. As part of the consent order, the city agreed to pay a $64,000 fine and outlined corrective actions to resolve the issues that led to the violations.
“Our goal is to protect water quality and stay within our permits. But, because treatment is a biological process, that process can get out of whack from time to time,” said Lori Sowa, CBJ utilities engineer, in a phone interview with the Juneau Empire on Monday morning.
According to the compliance order shared by CBJ in a news release, the city incurred multiple violations across the two facilities over a four-year period.
“The permits are in place to protect water quality. These violations were not a result of any observed harm to the water or water bodies,” Sowa said.
Jon Wendel,an environmental program specialist from the Department of Environmental Conservation who is familiar with the violations agreed with Sowa’s characterization of the issues.
“It is unlikely that there will be long-term impacts from the violations, however, it was the intent of the Department to identify issues early to potentially prevent those violations from occurring again in the future,” he said in an email late Monday evening.
Generally, the violations resulted from the city discharging treated water that was out of compliance with state-issued permits due to “exceedances” at the Juneau-Douglas and Mendenhall Valley wastewater treatment plants. No violations were issued for the Auke Bay facility.
“When we have upsets at the plant, that can result in an exceedance. When that happens, we report it and take action on our own to get back to operating at peak efficiency,” Sowa said.
Any event that falls outside of the permit is considered an exceedance. Sowa said that an exceedance can mean many different things, including suspended solids or a lack of biochemical oxygen in the water that’s released.
She explained that the city’s wastewater treatment plants operate with specific testing parameters. The city monitors discharged water to ensure that it meets all acceptable cleanliness levels when it leaves the facility.
“We have specific permits that outline testing requirements. We have tests that make sure our water meets the right parameters before we release it.”
Last year, the city learned that the Department of Environmental Conservation planned to pursue enforcement action due to the exceedances the city had documented and the routine inspections conducted by the Department of Environmental Conservation.
The report from the Department of Environmental Conservation states: “The violations identified in paragraphs 10 through 15 and paragraphs 19 through 24 were the result of site inspections conducted by the Department as part of the normal inspection interval and not the result of complaint-driven investigations or reports of observed harm to human health or the environment.”
According to Sowa, the violations at each facility are distinct and not part of a systematic failure.
Violations at the Juneau-Douglas facility
According to the Department of Environmental Conservation’s report, the Juneau-Douglas facility, located near Thane and constructed in 1973, received two reporting violations in 2016. The report also documents 31 instances of effluent violations between April 1, 2016, and April 30, 2018.
Six additional effluent violations were recorded between April 21, 2018, and Jan. 23, 2020. The facility was also cited for not updating the site’s Quality Assurance Program Plan and not notifying the public of a combined sewer overflow.
According to a news release issued by the city, a major construction project during the summer of 2017 caused the plant to operate at reduced capacity during the timeframe that most effluent violations were observed.
“We were installing new screening at the front end of the plant,” Sowa said. The screens help to filter solid waste out of the water before the waste enters the facility for further treatment.
“We can’t just stop the wastewater for four months, so it became a challenge to treat it,” Sowa said. “We were operating at reduced capacity during construction, and the vast majority of the violations were during that construction.”
Although Sowa worked in a different job during the construction, she recalled it as a busy time.
“We were accepting cruise ship water, and there was an effort to manage what we took in. In hindsight, we could have held back a little bit more,” Sowa said, referring to the volume of water the facility was accepting at the time.
Violations at the Mendenhall Valley facility
According to the Department of Environmental Conservation report, the Mendenhall Valley facility, which was constructed in the 1960s, received an unspecified number of “failure to meet effluent limit” violations in 2017 and 2019. It was also cited for failure to properly store containers, unapproved discharge, and reporting issues.
Sowa said the violations at the Mendenhall Valley plant resulted from “high-strength influence events.”
She said this happens intermittently but often in the autumn, as heavy rains flood the system with more water. It also occurs when food waste and grease enter the system or when industrial use increases.
The city is also surveying nearby industrial users to get a better sense of the types of waste that may be going into drains.
Correcting the issues
Sowa said that the city is taking a three-prong approach to resolving the issues and are working with Tetra Tech, a local consulting company, for guidance.
She said that ongoing capital improvement projects would result in facility upgrades, particularly at the Mendenhall Valley facility.
In addition, Sowa said the facilities staff is working on “continuous operational improvement activities” to help prevent exceedances.
“We are looking at what actions we can take at the facility to react and improve,” she said.
For example, Sowa said her staff has recently contracted with a microbiologist to monitor the different microorganisms used to treat the water. She said various microorganisms clusters could signal conditions that result in exceedances.
“Keeping a close eye on the micro-community can tell the staff a lot about what’s happening at the facility,” she said. “Based on what we see, we may adjust our procedure.”
Finally, Sowa said that the city will work with the community to reduce the type and volume of contaminants that flow into the system. She noted that reducing food waste and oil and grease that flows into the system will limit exceedances.
Sowa said it’s better to compost food waste or put it in the garbage than to use a garbage disposal to send the food down the drain.
Although there are financial penalties for the violations, the utility department will pay the fine from its funds, Sowa said.
Sowa said the city had already planned to make the capital investments needed to reduce violations at the facilities, and the money was already earmarked for the improvements.
“I don’t anticipate rate increases as a result of this order,” she said.
•Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at email@example.com or 907-308-4891.