Haines is one of nine Alaska communities operating under old federal permit waivers from secondary treatment for its sewage water discharge, and officials expect that upcoming permit reissuances could require Haines to add disinfection to its treatment.

The state expects the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency soon to reissue discharge permits to two of the other communities — Wrangell and Sitka. In coordination with the federal process, the state will review accompanying permits and might require those communities to add disinfection to meet water quality standards. Haines likely would follow suit.

Construction and installation of a disinfection system in Wrangell could cost between $1 and $2 million, said Randy Bates, director of the Water Division at the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

That number is specific to Wrangell, Bates said. The cost could be less for Haines, which has different equipment from Wrangell, although it’s too early to know what changes Haines would need to be in compliance.

Haines water-sewer plant operator Dennis Durr noted that not all plants are the same and that as of now he doesn’t anticipate the EPA and state’s decisions to significantly raise costs in Haines, given the infrastructure that already exists here.

Durr said more information would become available in the coming months as the EPA and state moves forward with their review process.

Bates told the CVN that mathematical models provided to the state by the EPA show that Haines’ mixing zone — the area where discharge becomes diluted with marine waters — is more than five miles in radius. The current permit approves only a one-mile mixing zone radius.

The prevalence of pollutants in the mixing zone is difficult to know without exhaustive sampling. “There are a million different reasons why you might or might not find a pollutant within a sample in your mixing zone,” Bates said. Tide, wind and temperature are just a few of the factors.

Durr said the borough frequently tests its discharge and does fecal analyses on local beaches. “We haven’t really seen any red flags,” he said.

If the EPA reissues Haines’ permit, the state might require the town to shrink its mixing zone, and “disinfection is incredibly effective (at that),” Bates said. He added that disinfection would reduce the radius of Haines’ mixing zone from 5.5 miles to mere yards. Though he noted it’s frustrating “anytime we have a reissuance of a permit” that adds costs in the community.

“We’re trying to find avenues of funding” to help communities pay for the upgrades, he said. That could include low-interest state loans.

A disinfection system, whether adding chlorine to the wastewater or using ultraviolet light to kill bacteria, could add to operating expenses.

EPA permit waivers from secondary treatment under the 1977 Clean Water Act go back years in Alaska, Bates said. Of the 45 remaining waivers nationwide, nine are in Alaska.

The federal agency “has not taken a look (at these waivers) in a number of years,” Bates told the state Senate Finance Committee. “It’s long overdue.”

Durr said Haines has been operating under a permit that hasn’t been updated in 16 years.

Standards to obtain a secondary treatment waiver include removing some of the bacteria that consume oxygen out of the water, removing solids, controlling toxins and monitoring discharge water. And a community must meet state water quality standards at the edge of its mixing zone.

Ultimately, success for the state and the communities would be reissuance of the federal permits and disinfecting the discharge to meet state water quality requirements, Bates said.

The Haines sewage plant removes solids from the wastewater stream through a process that consists of pre-filtering, settling, screening and clarifying, Durr explained. The plant was built in 1973 but much of its equipment is newer.

The EPA waivers allow communities to discharge into marine waters without building and operating larger and more complex treatment plants to clean up wastewater to higher standards than primary treatment and disinfection.

Secondary treatment plants can run into the high tens of millions of dollars or more, even for smaller communities. In addition to Haines, municipalities with EPA waivers are Ketchikan, Petersburg, Sitka, Pelican, Wrangell, Skagway, Whittier and Anchorage.