With no ferries to haul waste, Southeast Alaska’s septic tank problem could get messy

Trevor Richards of Juneau Septic System with his family and his truck. (Trevor Richards)

Towns in Southeast Alaska are suffering as a result of deep cuts to the ferry system — increased freight costs, barren grocery store shelves, late mail. And then there’s the freight most of us don’t think of: sewage.

Not all rural communities have normal sanitation systems like city sewer and water treatment plants. They rely on septic systems that need to get pumped periodically. And while the Alaska Marine Highway System is closed, pump trucks cannot get to some small towns that rely on them.

Gustavus City Administrator Tom Williams said that if his home septic system gets too full, he may have to empty it himself. But neighbors with inaccessible underground systems don’t have that option. They may have to resort to other methods if there’s no way to get a truck to town.

“You know, the honey bucket process is the one alternative,” he said.

Williams said if it comes to honey buckets, residents may empty them in the city’s restrooms. But he’s hoping state ferry service will resume, so that septic trucks can come from Juneau to service the town again. Delays like this cause a back-up.

“When the truck comes over, there’s a list of people who need to get pumped, and there’s only limited capacity. So depending on the amounts that are pumped out, if you’re not high enough up on the list, you have to wait till next time,” said Williams.

He said this inconvenience is just a part of the rural Southeast lifestyle — though he’s not the one using a honey bucket.

Pumpers from Juneau usually visit Gustavus up to 18 times a year. But Gustavus has not had a ferry sailing since January.

“The ferry system’s the best way to get the trucks out there for these communities that don’t have sewage treatment plants,” said Trevor Richards, a co-owner of Juneau Septic Systems. He sends pump trucks out to Gustavus and Pelican — when the ferries run.

“The only other option is to go with the landing craft, which tend to be $500 per hour. (That’s) the quote I’ve been given,” he said.

He said the rate he would have to charge communities would be astronomical. A round-trip on the ferry is about $800. And Richards said the landing craft are smaller, so more vulnerable to weather delays.

Richards’ trucks make only one yearly visit to Pelican, to pump the municipal system. Pelican disposes of human waste in four underground settling tanks. If the tanks get too full, heavy waste — known as sludge — doesn’t settle to the bottom.

Juneau Septic Systems truck pumped about 10,000 gallons of sludge out of the tanks last May. But with no ferries on the winter schedule and no proposed ferries on the summer schedule, Pelican Mayor Walt Weller is starting to feel some urgency.

“So the tanks could overfill and back up, but generally the sludge just flows straight through across the top and goes right out the outfall pipe. Which is what we do not want to happen,” he said.

The longer between pumps, the more septic pollution overflows into the Lisianski Inlet, which is Pelican’s fishing grounds.

“Who wants it in your garden? I mean, this is where we get our food from,” Weller said.

Most years, Pelican can maintain its septic system for about $10,000. That’s a decent price for a town of fewer than 200 people. If the municipality contracts a barge, that cost triples. And building a treatment system? Weller said that would be an impossible expense of roughly $250,000.

Neither community has any scheduled sailings through May on the current ferry schedule. The Alaska Marine Highway System proposed two bi-weekly sailings to Gustavus for the summer months. There are no proposed sailings to Pelican.

AMHS Public Information Officer Sam Dapcevich said the system may schedule the LeConte to stop in Pelican twice this May before it heads to Prince William Sound, but that decision has yet to be finalized.

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