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Southeast Alaska News
Following a somewhat heated public hearing on the issue Thursday, the Ketchikan City Council unanimously approved a budget amendment to provide an extra $100,000 for the city’s contract with engineering consultants CH2MHill.
Members of the public speaking against the budget amendment questioned the need to use CH2MHill for certain activities, such an answering concerns from the public about the city’s new chloramine water treatment system, which was turned on April 7th.
Jeannie Wills told the Council that city staff should be able to answer the questions themselves. Wills adds that she believes CH2MHill is biased in favor of the use of chloramine.
“I wonder if it would have been better to get a different third party and not the person that you paid all that money to build that plant,” she said. “It just seems like there is this huge conflict of interest there.”
Council Member Bob Sivertsen responded that a different firm would need to spend significant time studying the background, and learning all about the project before it would be able to answer any questions.
Speaking of background, here’s a little information for those who might not be familiar with the issue. For many years, the city’s water treatment system has been using free chlorine – essentially bleach – to kill organisms in the water that can make people sick. Unfortunately, when chlorine comes into contact with organic material, it produces byproducts. Some of those byproducts are regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, because studies have indicated that they can cause cancer.
Ketchikan’s water had too many of those regulated byproducts, and the EPA told the city it needed to do something to reduce the levels. There were options. One was a filtration plant, but the cost estimate was high – somewhere in the range of $30 million. The other was a combination of chloramine and ultraviolet light.
Chloramine is chlorine mixed with a small amount of ammonia. It also produces some of those regulated byproducts, but not usually as many. It also was a lot less expensive to build that system, so that’s what the city chose to do.
That was about 10 years ago. This winter, the city announced it was ready to turn the new system on, and that’s when a group formed to oppose the switch. United Citizens for Better Water members are worried mostly about the health effects of chloramine. They got a petition to put the issue on the ballot, collected signatures and turned it in. The city is in the middle of reviewing that petition, to make sure it passes legal muster.
That brings us to the present. Because of the public opposition, the city used CH2MHill’s services more than anticipated, and the money in the contract was used up. City officials said they’ll need the firm’s guidance through fall, at least, which is why they wanted the $100,000 budget adjustment.
Amanda Mitchell, who spearheads the United Citizens group, said she’s concerned about at least a couple of the items listed under CH2MHill’s proposed scope of work. One is assistance with the petition review.
“Why does CH2MHill think that they need to review our citizen initiative?” she said. “They’re not involved in our local ordinances, and we’re looking at paying them $10,000 to fight against us wanting to vote on this. That’s kind of disturbing.”
City Mayor Lew Williams III responded that the only person who will make the decision about the petition is the city attorney. But, the attorney might have technical questions, and needs to be able to get answers from an expert.
City Manager Karl Amylon added that the $10,000 is a placeholder, and the city may well not spend that much for the attorney’s technical advice.
“Money will not be borrowed unless expenses are incurred,” he said. “In terms of the technical support that CH2MHill will provide to the city attorney in this context, they’re the experts on the design of the plant. They didn’t build the plant, they designed it. If the city attorney needs their assistance to answer questions he has, that’s what this money is intended for. It may or may not be expended.”
Amylon added that it is common for municipal governments to hire professional firms to provide expertise in specific areas.
A couple more people spoke during public comment about chloramine, asking the Council to rethink its decision. One, Sally Balch, said she’s been testing her water and it appears that the pH level had risen since the city started chloramine. She said she would like clear, simple answers from city officials.
“If I really felt, heart to heart, that it was safe for us, I wouldn’t oppose it, because I trust you guys. I really do,” she said. “I voted for most of you guys to be here, because I believe in what you’re doing.”
But, she said, the Council should take a step back and rethink the decision about chloramine.
Later, during Council discussion of the budget amendment, Williams asked City Attorney Mitch Seaver to explain how he would use CH2MHill for the petition review.
“I have most of the information I think I’m going to require from Mr. Kleinegger,” Seaver said. “There are some technical and complex issue that I want to be able to speak with CH2MHill. I don’t foresee it being anywhere near the amount in this estimate.”
The budget amendment passed unanimously.
During Council comments at the end of the meeting, Council Member Marty West noted that the city of Portland, Oregon, is known for its environmental conscientiousness.
“I was noticing a news item today that they are going to discharge 38 million gallons of water from their reservoir because they found that a guy peed in it,” she said. “So, they take their water purity and quality extremely seriously. And they also have chloraminated water.”
If the ballot initiative proposed by the anti-chloramine group is approved by the city, it would go before voters within two months. If city voters then chose to prohibit the use of chloramine, the city likely would have to move forward with filtration.
The city’s legal review of the ballot initiative petition must be completed by May 2nd.
The chloramine issue is moving beyond city limits. At the prompting of people opposed to chloramine, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly has scheduled a presentation about the water treatment process for its next meeting; and the Ketchikan School Board is supposed to talk about the issue, as well.
The Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly meets on Monday, and in addition to a presentation from city officials about the switch to chloramine water disinfection, the Assembly will talk about repairs to the roof over the borough’s new pool.
An executive session to discuss potential litigation is on the agenda, and likely will take place before the Assembly discusses what action to take. According to the agenda statement, the pool opened in July of 2012, and condensation issues were noticed about two months later.
The borough took action to correct what was causing the condensation, but damage already had taken place. According to the agenda statement, some sections need to be replaced, and continued monitoring will be required to make sure more work isn’t needed.
Borough Manager Dan Bockhorst has recommended that the Assembly move forward with repairs, despite the lack of legal resolution. He writes that money remains in the original project budget to cover those repairs.
The Assembly meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. Monday in Borough Assembly chambers at the White Cliff building. Public comment will be heard at the start of the meeting.
Listen to iFriendly audio.
Assembly delivers positive evaluations for administrator, attorney. State parks requires permits for vehicles at HPR; seaweed gathering on foot is allowed. State gasline exec outlines Alaska’s stand alone project for Sitka Chamber.
The Ketchikan City Council approved an additional $100,000 for the water division should additional costs be incurred with the chloramine plant. The council decided against a fence on the bypass. Marty West gives a meeting update. City041814
Victoria Merritt with the Craig Parks and Recreation report for April 18th. (Correction: The 7:00 am Easter Sunrise service location is at the Klawock ball park). CraigPR041814
A bill allowing parents to sue those responsible for unlawful or negligent actions that lead to an unborn child’s death has cleared the statehouse.
Dubbed “Jackson’s Law,” SB200 was sponsored by Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage.
Presuming Gov. Sean Parnell’s signature, the bill would make Alaska the 41st state allowing parents to file civil lawsuits for such actions.
Republican Gov. Sean Parnell signed into law Thursday a bill to legally define the term “medically necessary” in relation to abortion funding criteria.
Supporters say the bill is not related to the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate but is an issue about how abortions are funded under Medicaid.
“We are simply trying to define, using relevant, neutral legal and medical standards, when it is appropriate for the people of Alaska to pay for a truly medically necessary abortion,” said Sen. John Coghill, R-Fairbanks and one of the bill’s primary sponsors.
BETHEL, Alaska — A woman from Western Alaska will be competing later this month for the title of Miss Indian World.
Megan Leary, a graduate of Bethel Regional High School, will compete in the Miss Indian World Cultural Pageant April 22-26 at the Gathering of Nations Powwow in Albuquerque
JUNEAU — Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Dan Sullivan raised more money during the first quarter than he previously reported.
The summary of his filing with the Federal Election Commission showed he brought in $1.4 million between January and March. That includes about $1.3 million in contributions from individuals and political committees and more than $150,000 in transfers from committees authorized to raise money on his behalf.
The campaign previously announced Sullivan had raised over $1.3 million. He had about $2 million available.
JUNEAU — A bill revamping how medical costs under the Alaska workers’ compensation program are calculated passed the state House Wednesday.
Time is tight for House Bill 306 to make it through the state Senate before the Legislature’s required April 20 adjournment, however.
The legislation changes the method for paying medical fees of injured workers under the state program to one that is used in several other states.
ANCHORAGE — An Anchorage psychiatrist is accused of billing Medicaid more than $300,000 for services authorities said were never provided.
Shubhranjan Ghosh, 39, is charged by the state with medical assistance fraud, scheme to defraud and evidence tampering, the Anchorage Daily News reported. Ghosh is the founder and sole practitioner at Ghosh Psychiatric Services.
He was arrested Tuesday. His arrest comes after a string of unrelated charges connected to Medicaid in what the state calls a continuing crackdown on billing fraud.
JUNEAU — The Alaska Legislature has confirmed Gov. Sean Parnell’s picks to lead the departments of Natural Resources, Revenue, Public Safety and Administration.
The only commissioner over which there was debate during a joint session of the Legislature Thursday was Joe Balash with the Department of Natural Resources.
The vote on Balash’s confirmation was 57-2. Democratic Reps. Scott Kawasaki and Chris Tuck were the lone members to vote against Balash’s confirmation.
JUNEAU — The Alaska Legislature has confirmed Gov. Sean Parnell’s appointees to Alaska boards and commissions, including two controversial picks.
Bernard Washington was confirmed to the State Assessment Review Board on a 45-15 vote. Richard Rabinow was confirmed to the board of the Alaska Gasline Development Corp., or AGDC, 43-17.
JUNEAU — One of the last major bills to come together in the Senate this session could be the education package.
Senate Finance Committee co-chair Kevin Meyer says members are trying to figure out what they want in their version of HB278. Meyer has charts in his office breaking down elements that have been proposed as part of the bill and issues that could be incorporated, such as a study on the per-pupil funding formula.
It’s almost time for the rush of family and friends from the Lower 48, and Alaska’s tourism industry leaders are expecting a good, but not great, 2014 visitor season.
John Binkley, president of Cruise Lines International Association Alaska, formerly the Alaska Cruise Association, said he is expecting 972,000 cruise visitors to the state this year, a slight decrease from the 999,600 cruisers in 2013. About 95 percent of those passengers stopped in Juneau.
JUNEAU — Gov. Sean Parnell said repealing the state’s oil tax system would “kill” oil production.
During an online town hall Wednesday evening, he also said he personally opposes the legalization of marijuana for recreational use. But he said if a ballot initiative on that issue passes this year, the state would implement the regulations needed for the measure.
Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Begich said he remembers driving through the Kenai Peninsula five years ago, shortly after his election to the U.S. Senate, and noticing the economy here was not in the best of shape.
In a return to the area, he shared some insight into his congressional activities, then fielded questions on his tax reform proposal, health care and the future of Alaska’s economy at a joint Soldotna and Kenai Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
Three incumbent members of Alaska’s Board of Fisheries were unanimously confirmed after a Chugiak representative withdraw his objection to the two commercial fishers on the board.
Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, said he objected to the confirmation of Sue Jeffrey, board member from Kodiak, and John Jensen, of Petersburg, because he had heard that someone was going to object to the third appointee — sportfishing guide Reed Morisky of Fairbanks.
Lawmakers have had to stay on their toes this week. They’ve been working in the 24 hour rule meaning that bills only need a 24 hour notice to be heard in a committee. Normally, it has to be scheduled the week earlier. When I talked with Senator Dennis Egan of Juneau, he said they had been dealing with another sort of challenge.
Egan: “Our Internet just went down. I mean for the whole Legislature.”
Angela: “How can you function?”
Egan: “Yeah. Seriously, Angela. Everything we have is on computer.”
Well, that problem came and went. But there are a lot of issues that still need to be worked out before the Legislature adjourns.
Egan: “Days are pretty long right now just because of the complexity of this session here. We have the gas line legislation and education is a big issue this year and neither of those bills are complete. And of course, we haven’t completed finalized the operating or capitol budgets yet.”
Angela: “Now, you’re mandated to come up with a budget. The budgets are something that you have to do but the bills you don’t have….
Egan: “We don’t have to do. But if we don’t do anything for education, um, school districts from just unorganized school districts too, municipalities are really going to suffer. We have to get an education bill passed this year.”
Angela: “So, what’s the hang up right now?”
Egan: “Well, the hang up right now is BSA.”
Angela: “Base Student Allocation.”
Egan: “Yes. And how we fund that. You know, the governor has a modest increase in the base student allocation. I think it’s the will of most members of the Legislature to increase the base student allocation. Problem is now there are certain members and House members that don’t want to put it in the formula, they want to keep it out and just give communities more education money…but it would be one time money. It wouldn’t set the level of the base student allocation any higher. I have trouble with that because we haven’t increased the BSA now going on five years and it’s about time that we add some more money in there just to keep up with inflation.”
Angela: “Okay, now in terms of the budget, how do you feel about it at this point?”
Egan: “I think it’s looking pretty good for District P. You have almost a million-8 ($1.8 million)…I can’t look it up. (laughs) You have almost a million-8 ($1.8 million) for waste water treatment. And then of course, the three million fed and state match for the airport apron and taxiway. And then we got a million dollars for the public safety building. And there are words in there that Crystal Lake Hatchery will be rebuilt right now out of Fish and Game funds and SRF funds and things like that, but the state has guaranteed that they will rebuild the Crystal Lake Hatchery.”
Angela: “So that could happen this building season then.”
Egan: “Yes it will. Or, we hope it will, yes.”
Angela: “Do you feel like there are any other last minute changes that might happen with the budget or is it pretty sealed?”
Egan: “Well, this is the horrible part: it changes on a daily basis. And, I think we’re in good shape right now. And it’s not a done deal.”
Angela: “Just in general, how would you say this session is turning out to be compared to others in the past?”
Egan: “Well, it’s been difficult, I think there are too many issues and a lot of other issues that don’t really pertain, at least, as far as I’m concerned, in running a good state system. You know, we have minimum wage on the ballot this year. The House, as you know, passed Legislation to usurp the initiative and do it legislatively. Well, that happened in 2002 and the next year the Legislature came back and gutted it. And I don’t think there’s a lot of interest in the Senate to do minimum wage this year. I think we’re of the ilk that we just let the voters vote.”
Angela: “So that’s still a possibility anyway.”
Egan: “Yeah, and then we have the other cool issues like marijuana and (laughs) and so that will be interesting.”
Angela: “It will be an interesting election this year.”
Egan: “And then repeal of the gas line legislation from last year, Senate Bill 21. That’s an initiative and that will be on the ballot. If we continue the legislature beyond the normal end date, beyond normal adjournment, then that would force the “No on 21 Initiative” to go on the general election ballot instead of the primary ballot.”
Angela: “How do you feel that might affect the outcome?”
Egan: “I don’t like the idea. I think that we can get out of here by Sunday. I mean there’s a lot of legislation that can wait a year. We should get the big stuff done.”
I also spoke with Representative Sam Kito III, a Democrat from Juneau. He said a big issue the last few days has been education, particularly putting $3 Billion dollars into the PERS-TERS trust. That’s the public employees and teachers retirement trust.
Kito: “It goes into the trust fund so it’s not really spent yet but it pays down our future liability to a certain degree which means we’re saving money on interest that we would be paying on in the future. And we are also decreasing our annual payment that the state will have to put in to try and try to match our actuarial…the amount that we’re under funded. So, that’s going to be a really big spend for the state and that’s going to be coming out of the constitutional budget reserve, I believe, which is basically one of the state’s savings accounts. So, we’re already spending a little bit out of savings. There are some possibilities that maybe we spent a little bit out of savings for capitol projects as well but we won’t really know until we see a CS come out of the finance committee.
Angela: “And that reserves savings account, if I remember correctly, is well over ten Billion dollars?”
Kito: “There are two accounts. The two accounts total up to somewhere around 17 Billion dollars. There’s the constitutional budget reserve account and then the earnings reserve account. There are tax credits in there for private non-profit schools that give me some concern about public money going into schools where the state doesn’t have adequate oversight. We don’t actually get to identify curriculum for private schools or measure results from private schools. So, I have a concern about that. And that was in the House bill when it left the House and I don’t know what the Senate’s going to do with that but we’re watching closely.”
Last year, the Legislature approves new regulations for cruise ships to release wastewater into Alaska’s oceans. Since then, the state has developed a permit process based on those regulations, and that permit process is now open for public comment. Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Water Director Michelle Hale stopped in Ketchikan on Wednesday to talk to the Chamber of Commerce about the permit process, and what the state is doing to protect Alaska’s environment.
With the new regulations in place, cruise ships that travel through Alaska’s Inside Passage will have better wastewater treatment systems than some coastal communities.
Hale said no untreated sewage is allowed to be dumped, and the legislation closed so-called “donut holes,” parts of the ocean that were just outside of state jurisdiction. The main activity that the new regulations now allow is the use of mixing zones.
“And that’s very similar to all other industries and municipalities in the state of Alaska,” she said. “It’s a little bit controversial relative to cruise ships; it’s a very standard practice when we are actually permitting wastewater discharges.”
Ketchikan has numerous mixing zones for the various wastewater permits, allowing discharge into the Tongass Narrows. They include the City of Ketchikan’s Charcoal Point Wastewater Treatment Facility, Point Higgins School, seafood processors, the shipyard, the Coast Guard, Vallenar View Mobile Home Park and the airport, among many others.
Mixing zones allow discharge to exceed the standards for certain contaminants, as long as
the standards are met within a certain distance of that initial discharge. In other words, it becomes diluted fairly quickly after its hit the water.
Hale said mixing zones for cruise ships are a little different, because ships move.
“The cruise ship defines two different regulatory mixing zones, one for discharge underway and one for discharge at 6 knots or less or stationary,” she said. “Primarily, that 6 knots or less is for stationary vessels, but we kind of had to make a break point. So, if you’re going faster than 6 knots, you get covered under one mixing zone, if you’re going slower, you’re covered under another.”
Hale said some members of the public were concerned that the permits for cruise ships wouldn’t protect the ocean enough. But, she said, her division wrote the permits in a way that treats cruise ships like other wastewater discharge systems.
“When we do our modeling and establish limits, we do that so that the water is protected, so that water quality is protected for the uses that that water is used for,” she said.
Hale said the water must be safe enough for a fish to pass through the area within 15 minutes, and not be affected.
She notes that it’s possible for cruise ships to treat wastewater so that it meets all standards before the water is released into the ocean; but it’s not practicable.
“This is our regulatory definition for practicable: ‘Available and capable of being done, taking into consideration cost, technology that actually exists and logistics, in light of overall project purposes,’” she said. “So, what practicable means, is it has to make sense.”
More details about the draft cruise ship wastewater permit program is available on the Division of Water’s website. That’s also the place to go to find out how to submit comments. The comment period closes May 23rd.
A link to review the Division of Water’s draft permit for cruise ship wastewater is below: http://dec.alaska.gov/water/cruise_ships/gp/2014dgp.html