07/13/2011 10:33 am ET Updated Sep 12, 2011

In Alaska, a Dirty Fight Over Clean Water

A small island fishing community 800 air miles southwest of Anchorage has found itself in a monster of a fight with federal enforcers based more than 4,100 miles away, in Washington, D.C.

Acting on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice is threatening to wring more than $158 million out of the city of Unalaska. It claims the city has for years dumped sewage pollutants into the Pacific Ocean and now wants a federal judge to not only force Unalaska into compliance but also impose up to $32,500 per day in fines, even more -- up to $37,500 per day -- for the most recent violations.

Before the Justice Department filed its lawsuit against Unalaska, city leaders pleaded their case to the Alaska Legislature, looking for money to help end the pressure they were under. They also brought with them a warning: Unalaska might be the first Alaska community wrestling with an unyielding regulator, but what if it isn't the last? Unalaska's bureaucratic tangle could be a signal of what's headed to other small, remote communities: financially devastating enforcement of a one-size-fits-all federal water policy that doesn't apply well to the realities of life in rural Alaska.

At issue is Unalaska's wastewater treatment system, which, according to the Justice Department, isn't working as effectively as the law requires. If it were, the city wouldn't have a failed track record over six years of putting more pollutants, including toilet waste, into ocean waters than the law allows.

"People are making this assumption that the city of Unalaska is dumping untreated sewage into the bay, which is of course untrue. It's ridiculous," said Unalaska Mayor Shirley Marquardt in a recent interview.

The federal Clean Water Act, which the EPA enforces, prohibits the discharge of pollutants into waterways without a permit. Unalaska has had a permit for years, which restricts the volume of pollutants -- including sewage, chemical waste and industrial waste -- that can be released daily, weekly and monthly. From 2004 to 2010, the Justice Department alleges Unalaska violated those levels more than 4,800 times, and that in 16 of the months it allowed too much fecal coliform bacteria to pass into South Unalaska Bay. The bacteria are microorganisms that live in the intestines of humans and animals.

While fecal coliform bacteria has the potential to carry human disease, the civil complaint filed by the Justice Department makes no mention of whether the alleged violations constituted a specific risk to human health.

The bacteria themselves aren't necessarily harmful, but if they are present, then other bugs -- bad, illness-causing ones -- might be present as well, according to Karsten Hueffer, an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Alaska's Institute of Arctic Biology in Fairbanks.

Fecal coliform is considered a marker for fecal contamination. If it's present, other organisms, including pathogens, could be, too.

The EPA declined to comment, referring questions to a spokesperson for the Justice Department, who also declined comment because of the pending litigation. ...

Read the complete story only at Alaska Dispatch.