Everyone at the assembly table knew the rate increase was coming. The city’s environmental department has been playing catch-up for several years, trying to stay on top of Sitka’s mill-era infrastructure, plus comply with new federal water disinfection requirements.

Two weeks ago, when the rate increase passed on first reading, Florian Sever spoke from the public – not against the rate hike – but against the ultraviolet disinfection program mandated by the federal government.

Sever is no stranger to a fight. The former pulp mill worker has become an outspoken environmental activist. He was back before the assembly Tuesday night, and his message was the same.

 “The samples of drinking water taken from Blue Lake by the EPA, all of the sediment was filtered out of that water, and then that water was tested for dioxin and it was not detectable. That’s because dioxins attract to organic substances; they would have been in the suspended solids or the turbidity that was filtered out.”

Blue Lake was in the industrial airshed of the Alaska Pulp Corporation mill for decades. Sever wasn’t opposed to its continued use as Sitka’s water supply. Instead, he wanted the assembly to address the correct problem.

“The regulatory doors are closing both on turbidity and dioxin. To spend $10-million on a UV plant to kill cryptosporidium, one simple one-celled animal, seems to me to be a monumental waste of time, when this assembly could agree – or at least look into – building a filter plant which could take care of all of these problems, including the chlorination process and cryptosporidium.”

Mayor Westover held Sever to his allotted three minutes, but this time around his concerns seemed to gain traction with the assembly.

 “The end goal is to have clean, safe water. We should have the best water here that anybody in the country has, really. If there’s anybody questioning that who has enough wherewithal to provide us with information and documentation to research, then I think it would be irresponsible of us as a body to request that that test not be done before we do spend a lot of money on a system,” said Phyllis Hackett.

Mim McConnell said that she had been hearing similar concerns from other members of the public. She wanted the environmental department to spend the time to resolve the dioxin question.

“Let’s prove without a doubt – whatever it takes – that our water is good”

Full confidence in the water supply also sounded good to the mayor. She asked environmental superintendent Mark Buggins for a refresher on the sticker price of the two treatment methods.

Westover – “And wasn’t it like $20-million versus the $8- to $10-million?”
Buggins – “The UV is $8- to $9-million, and the filtration system is like $25- to $40-million.”
Westover – “Oh.”

The current state capital budget has a $3.6 million line item for Sitka’s UV plant, which – like everything in the budget – may be subject to the governor’s veto. Nevertheless, Buggins said he’s never tried to spend state funding on anything other than its intended purpose. And, “I’ve never given any back.”
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