FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – A group of concerned citizens will not let the potential health risks of using treated sewage effluent to make snow at the Snowbowl ski area on the San Francisco Peaks outside of Flagstaff get swept under the rug on a technicality.
Although Snowbowl is a private, for-profit entity, the ski area operates on federal land under a special use permit. As a result, the federal government must approve Snowbowl’s plan to use 100 percent reclaimed sewer water to make snow – something that is not done anywhere else in the world. The City of Flagstaff agreed to sell Snowbowl the treated sewage effluent and off they went, or so they thought.
The San Francisco Peaks are well-documented as sacred and holy to at least 13 tribes in the Southwest, who viewed the decision as a direct threat to their religious and cultural survival. Litigation on cultural and religious issues surrounding the project was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, which recently declined to consider the case. The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case left a decision of an en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in place which went against the tribes.
The use of reclaimed sewer water to make snow, however, was not only repulsive to people who hold the San Francisco Peaks sacred, it raised concerns from skiers and the community over the safety of being immersed in, and even eating, snow made from non-potable treated sewage effluent.
Recently, the Save the Peaks Coalition and nine citizens filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona against the U.S. Forest Service. The suit alleges, among other things, that the Final Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the Forest Service ignores the possibility of human ingestion of snow made from treated sewage effluent. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Forest Service is obligated to consider these types of potential impacts on the quality of the human environment. In fact, a three judge panel of the Ninth Circuit previously found that the Forest Service failed to adequately consider the possibility of human ingestion of snow made from treated sewage effluent. The holding of the three judge panel was, however, overturned on a technicality by an en banc panel of the Ninth Circuit.
“The Forest Service failed to adequately consider the impacts of potential human ingestion of snow made from reclaimed sewer water as required by applicable law,” said Howard Shanker, attorney for the Save the Peaks Coalition and the other plaintiffs. “Our government should not be approving such projects without some sort of understanding of the anticipated impacts. By approving treated sewage effluent for snow making without adequate analysis, the government essentially turns the ski area into a test facility with our children as the laboratory rats. That is unconscionable.”
Shanker, a former congressional candidate in Arizona District 1, represented a number of tribes and environmental organizations in prior litigation over Snowbowl’s use of treated sewage effluent.
According to Arizona Department of Environmental Quality regulations, treated sewer water can be graded A+ even when it contains fecal matter in three out of every 10 samples. This same effluent has been found to contain pharmaceuticals, hormones, endocrine disruptors, industrial pollutants, and narcotics. It may also contain bio-accumulating antibiotics, such as triclosan and triclocarban, and pathogens, such as e. coli, hepatitis, and norovirus.
The human and environmental health risks, which have been largely ignored by the media, have their roots as far back as 2001 in the scoping comments made to the Forest Service about Arizona Snowbowl’s proposed expansion and upgrade. Plaintiffs involved in this lawsuit have consistently insisted that the Forest Service take a hard look at what might happen to the people, land, plants, and wildlife when they come in contact with or eat snow made from treated sewage effluent.
For a full background, legal documents, photos, and further information on the Save the Peaks Coalition visit the organization's Web site.