Dennis Anderson

On Nov. 29 the Mat-Su Borough and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation reached an agreement that includes a major upgrade to the Talkeetna Wastewater Treatment Plant. The agreement also settles fines that will be paid by the Talkeetna Sewer and Water Utility.

According to the Compliance Order by Consent, during 2014 and 2015 the DEC received multiple complaints from concerned citizens, environmental groups and the media. According to Terry Dolan, Public Works Director for the Mat-Su Borough, the collection system began to fail test results as early as 2013. The borough then began to sequentially execute recommendations from a professional engineering firm. Dolan also states that the borough self-reported the test failures to the DEC. The process isn’t that the borough would run as is and wait until the DEC finds violations but more of the borough runs these tests and then reports to the DEC. After the reporting is done by the borough, the DEC is in the mode of ‘you tell us what you are doing’. Since the first failures were discovered the public works department made many attempts to repair the sewer system. Repairs were made to manholes, pumps, pipes and lift stations but the system still failed to meet the requirements of the federal ‘Clean Water Act’. Violations were mostly for exceeding the fecal coliform limits.

Fines could have totaled $33,000 per day but the likelihood of that happening was pretty slim. The borough and DEC had been negotiating from the beginning. The settlement negotiated includes a fine of $11,500 for past violations, which is due 60 days after the Nov 30, agreement. There was an additional penalty of $48,150 because the facility did not reach full compliance during the summer of 2018. This fine must be paid within 120 days after the agreement was reached.

Were the violations due to an old facility or the increased volume from tourism?

“Yes and yes,” Dolan said.

Dolan states that facility is 30 years old. That is coupled with the large amounts of tourists that descend on Talkeetna each summer. This has stressed the facility past its limitations. The facility which was built in two phases, in 1988 and 1994,and has seen the amount of waste double from 12 million gallons to 24 million gallons the last couple of years caused partly by groundwater infiltration.

“We have a moral obligation to the environment and to the people in Talkeetna to get this fixed.” Dolan stated.

The agreement also includes that the borough will upgrade the sewer system. Upgrades in phase 1 must be completed by July 1, 2019. Upgrades include, among other things, the installation of anaerobic cells, a disinfection system and a reaeration basin. If for some reason the upgrades are not implemented then the date may be extended. The borough could pay an additional $53,500 in fines if phase 1 upgrades do not result in consistent compliance and there are instances of unexplained violations.

The borough has obtained a loan from the Alaska Clean Water Fund for $7.7 million. Approximately $2 million has been approved for design and desludging. HDL Engineering Consultants is under contract to design the plant upgrades. Once plans and permits are secured then the construction funds will be released. Once upgrades are complete the facility should meet the needs of Talkeetna for the next 20 years.

The $7.7 million dollar loan will be repaid by the Talkeetna Sewer and Water Utility. The voters in the Talkeetna Water and Sewer district approved a 3 percent sales tax that went into effect on Jan 1, 2018. To date the borough has collected $839,735. These figures do not include November. A total of $732,707 was collected from May through September. These taxes collected can only be spent on the sewer and water within the service area.

Some vocal Talkeetna residents have claimed that the borough is using the funds elsewhere. “That would be illegal. The people of Talkeetna can rest assured we are not using that fund outside of the service area.” Dolan said. “We are going to comply with the law. None of it has been spent yet.”

Some of the same residents also claim that the tax was obtained illegally or at the least misrepresented.

“From day one it was presented that any funds from this tax had to be spent on sewer and water in the Talkeetna water and sewer service area. Some have taken to social media and spread rumors throughout the town that we were stealing their money and spending it throughout the borough. There is not a bit a truth to it,” former District 7 Assembly Member Randall Kowalke said. “The Talkeetna Community Council heard two or three of my presentations. The Talkeetna Chamber of Commerce heard two or three of my presentations. The Talkeetna Sewer and Water Board heard two or three of my presentations. I got resolutions from all three of those organizations in support of the sales tax. After the sewer issues are fixed the water side needs to be replaced.”

Dolan states that ductile iron main that has a life expectancy of 30 to 50 years is sitting under water and has been corroding for 30 years.

“We’ve had some breaks,” Kowalke said.

These will have to be replaced. The water treatment plant was built because the floods from the 1970s and 80s contaminated the ground water before the pipes were installed. The treatment plant needs to be upgraded as well.

The sales tax could be repealed or reduced by the borough assembly at any time.

“Before the tax thing we tried to get loans. Even the low interest government loans would be denied because we had no positive revenue stream. They would see we were losing $100,000 last year on the utility because the rate payers weren’t covering the operating cost,” Kowalke said.

Residents in the Talkeetna Sewer and Water also pay a 3 percent tax on their utility bill, which has drawn criticism. In order to cover the costs of operating the system the utility customers would have to sustain a 19 percent per year rate hike for several years, according to Kowalke. “Instead of paying 19 cents per dollar, they pay three cents per dollar on their utility bill,” Kowalke said.

Along with that after the tax passed some businesses didn’t think they should pay it.

“We put a $1000 per purchase tax cap on it,” Kowalke said.

It comes down to simple math. The borough does not have the funds to pay for the upgrades to the system. The water district cannot obtain a loan nor does it have the means to pay back the loan without a revenue source. The voters in the Talkeetna district recognized that and made the decision to tax themselves but also take advantage of the fact they receive more than 300,000 visitors per year. Eighty-seven percent of the tax collected is from May through September, which is the tourist season. Talkeetna cannot use septic systems because of where the town is located, which is the confluence of the Talkeetna and Susitna rivers.

In other words, in the flood zone.

These facts won’t stop those who take to social media and emails to harass the borough and even the media. I guess when the facts are black and white there is nothing more a conspiracy theorist can do but become a malcontent.

Dennis Anderson is a group publisher for Wick Communications Alaska, Colorado

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