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Under new permit, Mt. A treatment plant still going

More than a year after the Mount Ashland Ski Area received a new permit for nitrate levels in its wastewater treatment facility, the plant's operator says plants and dispersion are keeping the toxin levels below Oregon Department of Environmental Quality standards.

With the facility closed for the summer, Mount Ashland wastewater treatment facility operator Gary Yeoman points out patches of grass growing in drain fields for the facility.

"Some of our fields have grasses on them," Yeoman said. "It appears the grasses hold the soils best for erosion and take up the most nitrogen."

The facility operator said effluent from the ski area lodge is transported to the facility, where it is treated by microorganisms then pumped uphill into drain fields where it seeps downhill.

"What's not being taken up by the crops, we're monitoring in the well," Yeoman said.

A 50-foot well lies below the drain fields. This is where Yeoman and the DEQ monitor the amount of potentially dangerous materials in the groundwater. While the treatment plant operates without violating its permit these days, Yeoman said, that wasn't the case in the 2004 to 2005 ski season. In December 2002, the DEQ issued a notice of noncompliance to the ski area for not meeting the standard for nitrates being released into the Ashland Watershed. While the ski area had reduced its amount of nitrates since 2000, it was still exceeding the standard. However, specialists with the DEQ studied the amount of effluent that was being dispersed and decided to change the rules for the ski area, finding it wasn't hazardous. A new permit issued April 5, 2005, did not contain a nitrate limit.

For some, like Tom Dimitre &

chair of the Rogue Group Sierra Club &

issuing a new permit wasn't tough enough. In a fall 2004 Ashland Daily Tidings article, Dimitre was quoted about the project saying, "The DEQ set a standard. If it wasn't important it wouldn't have been required."

Dimitre said his group followed the progress of the plant since it was built before 2000 and made comments when the facility exceeded its nitrate limit. After the new permit was issued, however, the local Sierra Club halted its work on pressing the issue.

"The DEQ's thinking was that there's no harm to anything," Dimitre said.

Jon Gasik, senior engineer for the Medford DEQ, said the study he helped complete with hydrogeologist Bill Mason showed the process the ski area was trying to implement wasn't working because effluent from the lodge was getting too cold.

"Basically, from an engineering standpoint, they couldn't get the denitrification process going," Gasik said.

The ski area either had the possibility of installing a heater, or the DEQ could do a new study to see how much the nitrates could potentially harm drinking water. Because of the dispersion of the effluent in drain fields and what was being taken in by plant roots, the DEQ found there was no significant risk.

"The bottom line was that the amount of treatment they were putting out wasn't hurting anything," Gasik said. "When we issue a permit, there's an expectation that we meet the permit standards. Here, environmentally, it was not really an issue."

Chuck Costanzo, with the DEQ in Grants Pass is monitoring the facility currently. He was not available for comment Tuesday.

Yeoman said he works with a laboratory in Medford to monitor the one 50-foot well where water from the fields drains. Some Ashland locals may still be skeptical of the facilities environmental repercussions, but Yeoman insists the dispersion and grasses in the drain fields are helping improve the situation.

"What we're discovering is that the grasses are taking up," Yeoman said.

Environmental activist Eric Navickas, who is suing the U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester Linda Goodman over the approval of the ski area's expansion in the Ashland Watershed, still thinks the treatment facility is a problem. He said he will bring up the ski area's practices regarding the facility in his oral argument Monday.

"What's most disturbing is if nitrogen rates continue at the rates that they have been which was up to 10 times the allowable amount there's nothing now to cause any response by Ski Ashland or the Forest Service to reduce these nitrogen levels," Navickas said. "Considering its our drinking water this is very serious."

He also said the ski area has not fixed a wall on the downhill side of the facility which still may not keep the facility warm enough for the denitrification process to work.

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 x 227 or .