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By ANDREW SHEELER
Daily News Staff Writer
Thursday night saw the latest in a series of testy exchanges between the Ketchikan City Council and members of the local protest group, United Citizens for Better Water.
Members of the group spoke in the public hearing portion of Thursday’s meeting to protest the proposal to authorize paying up to $100,000 to CH2M Hill for what city officials described as unforeseen costs related to the implementation of water chloramination as a secondary water disinfection measure for the municipal water supply. The Council later unanimously approved the contract amendment.
The $100,000 would come from a low-interest loan from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Drinking Water Program. The money would be used to cover allegedly unanticipated costs associated with chloramination implementation; ongoing water testing; coordinating with DEC as the city works to obtain authorization to continue the process past the temporary authorization deadline of Sept. 30; and providing specialized, technical consultation to the city attorney as he reviews the legality of a citizens’ initiative to bar the city from using the process.
First to speak against the motion was Jeannie Wills.
Wills said the Council was trying to treat the subject of water treatment like it was rocket science.
"And it’s not," she said.
Wills said city officials should be able to do the work proposed to be contracted to CH2M Hill, and asked the Council to answer the question, "When’s enough enough?"
City Mayor Lew Williams III said CH2M Hill’s ongoing services were needed because they had specialist experience that the city lacked.
"When you deal with engineers, architects, lawyers, it goes really fast," he said.
Council Member Bob Sivertsen added that it is very common to hire a third-party to handle environmental testing.
Wills responded that CH2M Hill couldn’t be trusted to be an objective reviewer of its own process.
"I wonder if it would have been better to get a different third party?" she said.
Sivertsen said CH2M Hill designed the plant and had the specific expertise on how to run it. He said a different third party would have to be given extensive training in the process before being able to provide testing services.
Amanda Mitchell, who started the Facebook page for the United Citizens for Better Water and who has been the most public member of the group, spoke next.
Mitchell said the work proposed under the scope of the up to $100,000 extension should already have been done, that the "umbilical cord" should have been severed. She said that City Manager Karl Amylon and Ketchikan Public Utilities Water Division Manager John Kleinegger should have the specialist training necessary to answer public questions and coordinate with DEC.
Amylon clarified that the money proposed was a "not-to-exceed number." He said that while he and Kleinegger could, and did, routinely work with DEC, Amylon said CH2M Hill simply had expertise they lacked.
"I’m not a chemist. I’m not an engineer," Amylon said. "This is why municipalities hire firms like CH2M Hill. This is all specialized science."
Mitchell continued to press Amylon.
"CH2M Hill should have already taught you enough about what’s going in there. They should have already set it up where it’s injecting the right amount," Mitchell said.
She asked why Amylon couldn’t be the one to contact the DEC or the Environmental Protection Agency. Amylon said it was because CH2M Hill was fulfilling its contractual duties by seeking out and providing information to the public from those agencies that verified chloramination as an accepted practice.
When Mitchell pressed Amylon on the subject, Williams interrupted.
"I think he’s answered the question," Williams said. "He said we needed technical advice; we got it. You can keep harping on this all you want."
Bill Hardy spoke next, also in opposition to the proposed CH2M Hill contract amendment.
Hardy said he went from being bemused to being disappointed by the Council’s actions, describing CH2M Hill as "hired guns" brought in to circumvent or shut down the public process.
He paraphrased a quote from Albert Einstein.
"The same thinking that got you into trouble will not get you out of it," Hardy said.
Hardy also commended those Council members drinking water from a glass and not a plastic bottle.
The last member of the public to speak in opposition was Sally Balch.
Balch said she was unable to drink city water anymore, and that she believed taking showers in the chloraminated water had contributed to a resurgence in her psoriasis. She said the Council and Amylon had taken more heat than they deserved from the public, but asked them to reconsider their decision.
When the time came for the Council to discuss the motion, Amylon reiterated that the money proposed was "a projected cost," and not a straight expenditure.
Sivertsen and Council Member Dick Coose voiced their agreement.
"We won’t pay anything without an invoice," Sivertsen said.
City Attorney Mitch Seaver clarified that while he had consulted with Kleinegger about the chloramination process, CH2M Hill would be able to answer some of the "complexities" associated with the process. He added that he didn’t foresee actually spending the entire $10,000 portion set aside specifically for legal consultation.
The Council voted 6-0 to approve the contract change. Council Member DeAnn Karlson was absent.
Council Members and the mayor used their closing remarks to further address the public comments made Thursday night.
Council Member Marty West called Portland, Ore., a good example of an environmentally conscious city.
The Pacific Northwest city recently made news with its decision to drain a 38-million gallon reservoir of treated water because a teenager was caught urinating in it. West said Portland’s decision to drain the entire reservoir over the presence of human urine pointed to the city’s dedication to water quality.
"Anyway, they also have chloraminated water," West said.
Council Member Matt Olsen thanked members of the public for speaking but said sometimes, "it’s difficult when you care so much about something to hear what’s being said."
Also Thursday, the Council:
• Opted not to pursue the construction of a Third Avenue Bypass fence, after a public works department reported that the project would be costly and difficult to implement without interfering with private property.
• Unanimously voted to award a $101,878 contract to Nelson Truck Co. for a new utility truck and rejected an appeal from Anchorage-based Cal Worthington Ford.
• Unanimously voted to accept a public works department report on the demolition of the former Alaska Duty Free Liquor building at 420 Water St.
• Heard public testimony from Twisted Tree owner Chris Hoyt about concerns he had regarding a series of "near-misses" he had observed on Water Street. Hoyt said he and other pedestrians had almost been hit by drivers several times on the section of road between the tunnel and the former Talbot’s building. Hoyt asked the Council to consider employing crossing guards at Berths 3 and 4 as it does for Berths 1 and 2. Williams requested that the Council consider that possibility at its next meeting, on May 1.
• Voted 5-1 to enter executive session to discuss litigation strategy in order to recoup city expenses incurred in demolishing the old Bawden Street Apartments building.