The Environmental Protection Agency permit that allows Anchorage to release its treated sewage into the inlet is expired.

The city’s last permit to release treated sewage into Cook Inlet was issued in 2000.

“We don't discharge sewage into the inlet—at all,” said Jeff Axmann, who oversees operations at Asplund Wastewater Treatment Facility in Point Woronzof.

The process of breaking down and filtering waste from toilet or sink to public water is a highly technical one, Axmann said.

“We float the fats, oils and grease, so those two components are removed,” he said. “Then the clean water is sent through the disinfection process to kill any pathogenic or disease-causing organism, and then discharged into the inlet. Dirty water in, clean water out.”

The next sewage treatment step is even more complicated, and one that’s required of cities that deal with industrial waste.

But more than 30 cities, including Anchorage, are allowed to skip that “secondary treatment” step, and have been granted a 301(h) waiver.

City officials, however, prefer the word “permit” over “waiver.”

“I think the connotation of a waiver is there's something you're getting away with, and we're not getting away with anything,” said Brett Jokela, general manager of Anchorage Water & Wastewater Utility. “We're fully compliant with the law. In fact, we treat wastewater here at the Asplund wastewater plant to a degree much higher than is actually required by our permit.”

The permit requires the city remove 30 percent of “suspended solids,” but Jokela said the facility goes beyond that to remove 75 percent.

To qualify for the federal 301(h) permit, the city has to meet nine requirements, including protection of marine life.

Anchorage has to re-apply for the permit every five years.

“The last permit that was issued was 2000,” Jokela said. “We reapplied, timely, in 2005 and we've been working since 2005 on the administrative extension of the permit.”

Since then, in 2008, the Cook Inlet beluga whale was listed as an endangered species, which means more scrutiny of Anchorage’s treatment process.

"While the listing of Cook Inlet Beluga whales is a new factor that must be considered as part the renewal application and 301(h) analysis, it does not preclude reissuance of a permit,” said Marianne Holsman of the Environmental Protection Agency. “Consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service would have to occur prior to reissuance of their 301(h)-modified permit."

Holsman said EPA expects to complete its technical review of the waiver application “this fall/winter and then initiate a stakeholder and public review process.”

If EPA denies the waiver, Jokela said the city will likely have to spend up to $800 million to build a secondary treatment facility—a bill that ratepayers would likely have to foot.