By CHRIS FORD
PALMER — The borough’s decision whether to allow land applications of biosolids (or treated septage on land) within its jurisdiction remains on hold after the Mat-Su Planning Commission tabled adoption of a resolution to ban such activities at Monday evening’s regular meeting.
The agenda included a public hearing on Resolution 17-15 recommending adoption of prohibiting land applications of biosolids. Biosolids is the treated septage from wastewater treatment plants. Biosolids that meet federal and state standards have become extremely popular to use as a soil fertilizer throughout the Lower 48.
Borough Development Services Manager Alex Strawn provided an in-depth explanation of both sides of the issue. On one side, application provides dual benefits. It allows for the disposal of a byproduct of municipal wastewater treatment and provides what the federal Environmental Protection Agency terms a cost-effective way to improve soil damaged by improper management. There are federal and, in many cases, state guidelines which biosolids must meet before they can be utilized in such a manner.
On the other side, many are concerned about substances in the used septage that cannot be broken down through the most utilized wastewater treatment methods. Studies have shown certain chemicals, such as those used in personal care products, synthetic pharmaceuticals, and organic compounds, accumulate in repeated application processes. During discussion, it was pointed out that studies completed on biosolid applications were done in much warmer climes than Alaska’s. Studies where the soils aren’t “as active” with organisms that break down the solids, have not been conducted, Strawn pointed out.
Strawn said he was directed by Assemblyman Jim Sykes to look into the issue. As is currently written, the resolution would provide a one-year grace period before taking effect and Strawn noted that incorporated cities within the borough boundaries, such as Palmer and Wasilla, are excepted from the ban. Strawn also shared documentation from the state asking that such a ban not be put in place. When asked, borough legal advisor Shannon Bodolay said her office was comfortable in moving forward with adopting the resolution.
Strawn said his research has shown that the practice is currently used in only one location in the borough — a hayfield near Point MacKenzie. The used product comes from the nearby Goose Creek Correctional Facility. Several commissioners had questions and concerns about the topic. Included were costs that would be invoked on the City of Palmer and Goose Creek if the ban was enacted, whether the ban would affect a proposed local wastewater treatment facility and whether generated biosolids would be a liability or asset in the future.
Strawn said it was his understanding that the borough has received a proposal for construction of a wastewater treatment facility but the information has yet to be made public. After putting the resolution on the floor, a flurry of public comment on both sides of the issue followed. Palmer City Manager Nathan Wallace urged the commission to take a closer look at how such a ban would affect his municipality. Palmer’s current holding wastewater holding pond is outside its city limits. Wallace said the city currently treats its septage with lime, a necessary action to make the byproduct marketable as useful fertilizer or Class A standard.
“We may not be a Class A facility, but (our byproduct) is Class A when it finishes,” Wallace said.
The manager said he has no problem with the ordinance but rather with how it is written. Wallace said he would like to see municipalities exempted from the ban. Palmer currently spreads the septage on city-owned property within the city limits. Wallace said the ban would create a “huge financial burden” on the city.
State Department of Corrections representative Clifton Reagle said such a ban would not only have detrimental effects on Goose Creek, but the surrounding area as well. Reagle said it would cost an estimated $75,000 annually to have the septage hauled to Anchorage and disposed of. Additionally, there would be an increase of large-truck traffic along the already congested Knik-Goose Bay Road corridor related to the hauling.
Several borough agriculture commission members spoke during the comment period. Normal Harris said the topic has been discussed for more than a year amongst board members and it is a concern that has surfaced numerous times. James Skinner noted the resolution submitted by his commission called for a moratorium until more information is collected and is not a ban.
Other comments centered on the cold climate of Alaska and the effect it has on microbes and other organisms used to break down biosolids. He said studies of conditions similar to those in the state have not been conducted. Several spoke out on the pathogens, toxins and other chemicals — some of which have yet to be analyzed — believed to be contained in small amounts in the product, and the cumulative effect of exposure to humans, and animals in the human food chain.
Eugene Carl Haberman, speaking for the fourth time in the meeting, said he felt additional public hearings were necessary. He also felt that every person addressing the commission should be given the same amount of time to present their concerns. The commission allowed three minutes for general public comment and five minutes if the person represented a government body or agency.
Following public comment, commission chairwoman Colleen Vague asked whether the body would like to table action until the treatment plant facility proposal becomes public. Commissioner Patricia Chesbro said she needed more time to digest all the received information and moved to table it until the body’s May 1 meeting. That motion passed.
Following the motion passing, the discussion then turned public comment at that meeting. It was agreed that those who spoke at Monday evening’s meeting would not be able to do so on the biosolids issue on May 1.
“You only get one bite of the apple on this,” Vague concluded.