The ferry necessity: Haul sh*t away, make State pay


And so it came to pass that one of the most compelling reasons that rural Alaska communities in Southeast need ferries is because their septic tanks are full, and they need them to be pumped.

And the truck that pumps them needs to get on a ferry and take that sludge to Juneau, where it can be pumped into the waste treatment plant.

Such was the explanation on public media, which described the plight of people living in the homesteading community of Gustavus, where the septic tanks have filled up, as they do. And for all the wealth of Gustavus (median household income is $61,000), they’ve never figured out what to do with that stuff.

[Read: With no ferries to haul waste, things could get messy]

Gustavus is one of those white rural communities, settled 1914 by hopeful farmers who came to grow strawberries on the outwash left by glacial retreat. The strawberry farmers supplied the Treadwell Mine with strawberries from the area known as, appropriately, Strawberry Point.

Then along came President Calvin Coolidge, and in 1925, he signed into law Glacier Bay National Monument, and that included the homestead settlement of Gustavus. Appeal after appeal went on for 30 years, and finally the homesteaders were allowed to keep their land; Gustavus was excluded from being part of the national monument.

The community is now at about 440 people, not all of whom live there year round. Pelican, which is nearby, is home to about 85 people, and it, too ships its sludge to Juneau, all with the help of the State-subsidized ferry system. The fare for the pump truck on the state-subsidized ferry is $800, while a landing craft would go for much more.


  1. As politely as I can, the people of the State of Alaska shouldn’t be subsiding the shipment of fecal matter! Pay for removal of your own crap just like we do in Los Anchorage!

    • Holy sh*t…pardon the pun…..we do pay for it! Thousands. Prob is getting the truck here. They can’t drive to our doorstep like Anchorage.

    • Have you ever been to Gustavus?
      It’s a spectacularly beautiful place. We each pay a share Of the cost to get our septic tanks emptied. Are you seriously suggesting that our town of “ about 440 people, not all of whom live there year round” should have its own septic station? LOL. We don’t have public utilities, with the exception of our landfill. If you had ever been here you would know that.

        • The septic truck isn’t subsidized. We all pay for the ferry transport, split between those utilizing the service at that time. and our community is a profitable run for AMHS.

      • “Holy sh*t…pardon the pun…..we do pay for it! Thousands. Prob is getting the truck here. They can’t drive to our doorstep like Anchorage.”

        “We each pay a share Of the cost to get our septic tanks emptied. Are you seriously suggesting that our town of “ about 440 people, not all of whom live there year round” should have its own septic station?”

        No, we’re suggesting you get the honeywagon to come via landing craft vs. a state subsidize means.

        Get real, both of you.

        • Great idea Lee. Then the ferry, that will run anyway, empty or loaded, can lose out on the additional revenue.

          • Every dollar spent for tickets on the AMHS ferry triggers four dollars subsidized by Alaskans. Those living in Palmer are paying for the privileged can live the idyllic life in Gustavus.

      • Noel, why don’t you pay to get public utilities installed there then? Is there a tax base where you live? If not, time to consider it.

  2. KTOO Juneau Septic Services truck pumped about 10,000 gallons of sludge out of the tanks last May. But with no ferries on the winter schedule and no proposed ferries on the summer schedule, Pelican Mayor Walt Weller is starting to feel some urgency. Pelican can maintain its septic for about $10,000 a year this way — a decent price for a town of fewer than 200 people (85 if you read above info). If the municipality contracts a barge, that cost triples (that’s 30k dollars / 85 people is less than a dollar a day per person for 365 days or family of four 4 dollars a day or $120 per month. Cost of doing your business in SE AK).

    • Yes yes. Add that on to the .75/lb air freight they pay out there. It’s a great deal. Maybe you could set up an extra bedroom at your city dwelling for a family or two.

  3. If they just pumped the waste into the ocean nature would take care of it. But government over regulations from Washington DC outlaws that.

  4. Here we go, baiting readers again…

    Months ago, MRA and its readers were beating up on the University system. Now, the target is the ferry system, and those who depend upon it. I wonder who will be the recipient of the next round of MRA wrath.

    Overall, a pretty tight-fisted and mean-spirited bunch frequent MRA, I’d say.

    The ferry system is a wonderful asset for the State, and it helps make Alaska what it is.

    Maybe next time you want to take your kids to Glacier Bay, you won’t be able to since it’s too expensive. Or, perhaps the tourist services there (and the associated revenue) will dry up due to a lack of sanitation facilities.

    The next thing I expect from this site is people demanding not to pay school taxes because they don’t have any children in school.

    The ferry system benefits many Alaskans in one way or the other, and it’s available to all. Instead of complaining about it, why not get out there and enjoy it and thereby use some of your PFD largesse to help to support it?


    • “The next thing I expect from this site is people demanding not to pay school taxes because they don’t have any children in school.”

      Yes, that should be the case. Government should not have any indoctrination roles in the family household. It wouldn’t be so bad if socialistic ideals weren’t being promoted through the ranks our elementary, secondary (and post-secondary) education ‘institutions’.

      No more pledge of allegiance? No more prayers? No more taxes.

      • Sir – You may think you want to live in a world without taxes, but honestly, you won’t like it. You benefit in ways you don’t even know right now as a result of you and others paying them.

        And of course, I’m sure you pay to send your kids to private schools so that they don’t have to use the public system that you so vehemently despise. Right? Or do you send them to the “socialistic” public system because it’s free? Just testing your commitment to your aforementioned ideals…

  5. If figures provided by AK Fish are fairly accurate, they should pay their own way. That would give them incentive to find an alternative solution. There are many.

  6. Interesting arcticle. I would point out that the State also may pay for septic transportation for the Mat- Su Borough. I have many times seen large 18 wheeler septic tankers headed to Anchorage from the Valley. Highways are State owned and maintained similar to Ferries. I believe Gustavus has a budget surplus due to collection of a bed tax. Certainly it could afford to operate a sewage treatment plant. Similar to the ones every Pipeline camp had back in the mid ’70s.
    The real story here is that Gustavus and perhaps the Mat-Su are literally crapping on their larger neighbors!

  7. Incredible that household septic sludge cannot be permitted for local treatment. Paying lots of money to dispose of a commodity to be replaced by artificial fertilizer also subsidized to be shipped in. If you cannot afford the cost of living, do like the rest of us and relocate. Next I will bet that they get subsidized (free) composting toilets, available at Home Depot for under 2K sized for a family of 8.

  8. Hahahaha. Yeah Suzanne. Like VSF has never spent a penny in the populated areas of Alaska for wastewater treatment. The addition of the pump truck to the ferry run does nothing but increase the ferry revenue. Sure we can get a facility built one of these days. We’ll use 100’s of thousands in public funds just like every other town and village in AK!

  9. Although I appreciate your candor, I understand you are a Christian as a fellow pilgrim I would expect you to love thy neighbor and not belittle the system they have. The State subsidize many things to pick on one is absurd and a abuse of your powers. We are one State and we should care about all our residents even if you do not live in their region.

  10. A sustainable Marine “Highway” system would treat the Port infrastructure as the state-maintained/subsidized portion while the “trucks” moving commercial traffic and the “cabs” moving people, the actual boats, are owned by private companies who pay for use of the facilities. Just like the terrestrial highway.

    If there is a felt need for smaller “People Mover” analog subsidized “buses” (including limited transport of personal, not commercial, vehicles) then those can be partly paid for, as now, by user fees. The idea of the State running the commercial trucking analog is absurd and fiscally unsustainable.

  11. All of the villages with populations similar to Gustavus and Pelican in the interior of Alaska handle their own sewage without sending it to Fairbanks on a state subsidized boat or airplane. I wonder how that happens and why we haven’t heard a peep about their sewage problems.

    • Because VSW built sewer treatment facilities with public money. When people in a small SE community such as Gustavus pump their on site systems every 5 years or so (for a fee), the truck goes on the ferry (for a fee) and the waste goes to the city of Juneau facility (for a fee) for processing. But hey, we’ll gladly take a treatment plant here built for free just like your village!

  12. Both Gustavus and Pelican are members of the Alaska Municipal League, which has $658,102,106.03 stashed out of taxpayers’ reach in its “investment pool”.
    To Gustavus and Pelican stalwarts we say, not unkindly, get money from your AML friends, charter sh*t hauler flights or boats if you must, in other words, get your sh*t together, haul it on your dime, your time, and don’t even think of stiffing productive Alaskans for hauling your sh*t.
    Other than that, may we offer heartfelt sympathy; your situation seems so much like a meme for the political sh*t transforming our state government into one big sh*t heap.

    • Who’s getting stiffed? The ferry doesn’t haul a pump truck for free. It’s pretty spendy actually…$800 for 100 miles. And….wait for it….the ferry is running anyway! It’s also servicing Hoonah on the same trip! So yeah, the extra cargo revenue is good, no?

      • One septic pumper services the whole Hoonah-Gustavus-Pelican circuit, what if it breaks down or the driver gets sick?
        What’s the billable cost of hauling a septic pumper full of biohazard around the Hoonah-Gustavus-Pelican circuit, who pays for it and the driver?
        What does it take to solve the septic-disposal issue locally so a septic pumper isn’t needed?
        Point is, if one’s community is a member of the AML $650M+ Club, issues like this may be challenges, opportunities, but certainly not sellable as crises.

  13. This article must be some sort of joke. For various reasons, a couple of communities have resorted to shipping their sewage waste on the AMHS to be properly disposed of in Juneau with the costs paid by the owners of said septic waste.
    Now suddenly, because the State has improperly destroyed that AMHS, is the point of above article that the septic waste should be spread into the bar ditches of those communities so the kids there can reap those rewards? Or perhaps the author would prefer that waste be discharged into our waterways? With all the wealth of the homesteading community of Gustavus, perhaps they could just spread it onto their victory gardens.

      • Evidently I hit a nerve here Lee Terry-care to expound on just what was asinine about this comment. Go ahead and be specific or we’ll consider your own comment just your usual window dressing.
        Take your time as you’ll need to absorb more than you are probably capable. Heheh!

        • Bill, you are wrong to say “with the costs paid by the owners of said septic waste.” The ticket price is 10% to 20% of what Alaskans who own the system pay to run it.

          • Well Wayne perhaps you can come up with your own fares to charge any users. Do you also claim that costs to users of roads need to factor in maintenance issues or plowing costs?

          • Did I hit a nerve there Mark that’s got you name calling now? Go ahead and give us what it is that’s eating you so much. Heheh!

          • Well Mark, your nerves are OK by your own admission but what’s wrong with the signals from your brain? I’m still thinking it’s a nerve problem Mark- where do you get your “what’s wrong the this country?” Heheh!

  14. Gustavus never had ferry service provided by the state until 2010. You’ve forgotten that it’s only been 10 years. What did they do before?

  15. Several years ago I was part of a committee that identified a large parcel of state land adjacent to the Gustavus airport that was ideal for a septic sludge land spreading site. ADOT refused our permit request due to their concern that the land spread sludge would attract birds. To my knowledge septic sludge does not attract birds. So the more expensive option of having the sludge pump truck come out on the ferry had to used. Because of the cost to transport the truck on the ferry, the cost of septic tank pumping in Gustavus is about triple that of pumping a tank in Juneau.

    I don’t appreciate the sarcastic tone of your article.

    • So instead Alaska’s D.O.T. used the land in Gustavus for fire fighting training, dumping toxic chemicals into the groundwater and thus polluting dozens of private, commercial and school system wells. Now the State wants Gustavus residents to pay millions to try and clean up an impossible task. Meanwhile D.O.T. is shipping in drinking water, on the ferries when they run, and haul out the empty plastic containers. Maybe Gustavus residents should be asking D.O.T. to pump out the polluted groundwater instead of sewage?

  16. Anyone else here notice the irony of Juneau finally being on the receiving end of truckloads of sh*t?

    As much as I think it is funny, it is also inappropriate that the people of Alaska should pay to support ferry service for this purpose. The area should charter their own craft or devise another solution under the current budget situation.

  17. It seems like a reasonable solution to use existing transportation infrastructure to move waste to the nearest adequately sized processing facility. One of the big problems is that there has been no chance to develop alternative plans. The abrupt halt of state supported upkeep of transportation systems has left communities scrambling to find affordable alternatives. Blaming someone for not having the tools to stay standing moments after witnessing a sweeping of the knee is bully behavior, it’s also not constructive problem solving.

    • Again, I ask: if the ferry never ran to Gustavus before 2010, what did Gustavus do with their septic from 1914 until 2010? There seems to be an entitlement mentality on this thread that the white-privilege folks of Gustavus, many who are retired Tier 1 state employees with really big pensions, deserve this new sewage-moving service. Gustavus has a full-service airport operated by the state that can land Boeing 737s, with no landing fees, no tie-down charges. What other Southeast community has all that, plus subsidized sh*t hauling service.

      • It’s not pertinent as to what Gustavans did prior to Ferry Service as laws change relative to sewage waste issues.
        However an interesting contrast here is what did occur in Juneau several years ago when a large US Navy ship docked in town for 4th of July festivities. The ship contracted to have it’s sewage pumped off and taken to Juneau’s processing facility-there was about 10 pumptruck loads taken off and when that Navy skipper got the bill (several tens of thousands $) he threw a fit. He said never again and that he would proceed to dump his sewage in the ocean where it was permitted.
        Of course such a temper tantrum would not work for these communities as it would be pretty prohibitive to haul that sewage to a permitted dumping spot.

      • Not sure what one person she interviewed but someone needs to tell them pumping out in winter is a bad idea-frozen lift station. I think a pump truck come twice a year for the whole community.

        I pretty much can say pretty positively that our number 1 reason is medical and secondly food. We have one commuter air carrier that has two flights a day and this winter has had many days in a row without service. The person who referenced the jet- that only comes in June, July and August. It is subsidized mostly by the Feds I think because we are the longest runway in SE and Homeland Security needs it to remain active. That and they poisoned our water system with their PFAS/PFOS firefighting foam.
        Our town is made up of all kinds of economics not just park employees and many Juneauites have second homes here, guess they can afford two houses.

      • Funny.

        Most people have on site septic systems that require maintenance pumping every 5 years or so. It’s not like every flush gets hauled out. Systems built in the last 20 years are mostly done right and in the last 15 years are DEC permitted. Before that people had outhouses, a crib, or pumped their tanks into a pit on their own property.

        White privileged? Wow. You should go look at some schools in villages and small communities around then come take a look at ours.

        Retired Tier 1 state employees? Probably a few. Just like everywhere else. Also some Park Service. So what?

        Yeah we have a big airport. Alaska Airlines gets $775K a year in essential air service subsidies to land here for June, July, and August. I suppose that’s the communities fault also? Maybe they can haul a 56,000# turd hurse in the -37…would be more help to the locals than what their limited summer only schedule offers now.

        So yeah, the ferry hauls a pump truck sometimes. For a fee. The ferry is running anyway and serving the village of Hoonah and sometimes Pelican on the same trip in case you’re worried about those folks at all too. The ferry service welcomes the additional revenue by the way.

      • There is and has always been the ability to haul the pump trucks out of Gustavus via landing craft. The ferry use has only been available for a few years.
        The person or persons that spoke to the media had an agenda or they were new residents that have no idea how things actually work here.
        I also question that $ 61,000 average income statement.
        Unless you work for the US Park Service the income is very much lower.

      • We have and do pay for sludge removal when necessary.
        The pump truck company is the one that started the KTOO news report. They complained about the lack of inexpensive ferry travel.
        When no ferry is available they bring their truck over on a landing craft as has been done for years both before and after ferry service.
        We (individual residents) seem to pay the truck company plenty what ever way they manage to provide services.
        State airport is here to provide emergency landings to flights needing to overshoot juneau…

  18. This illustrates extremely well the very spoiled communities served by the very subsidized AMHS. This Saturday, in Juneau, at the municipally-owned Centennial Hall there is the grand kick-off of the signature gathering for the Governor Mike Dunleavy recall election. The ferries will be front and center for that left-wing celebration in the capital city, at a municipal building. Yet we would be rightly outraged if the Legislature considered subsidizing a barge service to collect septic tank contents in Bethel, Kotzebue and Barrow (whatever Barrow is now called). We Alaskans expect and demand the free rides to last forever; imagine paying 5 full-time crews per vessel, at wages and benefits that are well into six figures, to pick up CRAP! Imagine using one-time state cash reserves to do this! And attempting to recall a Governor who questions it! These recall proponents want every PFD to get a haircut so communities like Gustavus can pay less than the actual cost of having their crap collected; you could not make this up! These are greedy idiots that both have their hands in our pockets and own both Majorities in the Alaska Legislature. As happens every day, if we did not have Must Read Alaska we would have neither common sense nor balance in the Alaska media. Is there anyone who disagrees with anything I have said here? Can we allow this disgraceful recall to continue? Is this recall not an assault on a fair election that took place in November, 2018?

    • The ferry is not exclusive to hauling septage. It also hauls people, and freight, and food. It’s the highway here. Since 1957. No one said it’s easy in the northern villages, yet ANCSA didn’t hurt them too bad either. Last I heard NSB had a jet and some pretty pricy helicopters. Local tax buy those?

  19. Idea! Recommission one of the out-of-service ferries and dock it at Gustavus. Use it as a giant floating septic tank. When loaded, drive it out to sea and discharge. Really, this is not such a shi¶¶y idea, considering that the AKMHS loses money every year down the sh*t hole.

    • The M/V Bartlett still floats somewhat. Repaint it and turn it into a floating outhouse for Gustavites. Maybe a tour ship will swing by for pictures and Gustavus can tax them?

  20. Thus is the nature of socialism/communism. A privileged few elitists end up enjoying costly benefits paid for by the proletariat masses. An $800 ferry ticket actually costs the state $4,000 to provide. Those working citizens in Mat-su pay the difference one way or another. Imagine being able to retire in remote wilderness. Medicare pays untold $millions transporting these privileged few to doctor appointments that double for them as shopping trips.

    Remember Jefferson: “that government is which governs the best is that which governs the least.”

    You get what you vote for.

    • I think you nailed it Wayne. That’s the issue at its core. How much should small non economically viable, remote communities cost to be attached to SOA infrastructure? Many in North Seattle (SE Alaska) constantly claim that since south central has “subsidized” roads for travel, they deserve theirs as well. No, it shouldn’t work like that, there needs to be a cutoff at some point depending upon population, accessibility (cost) and economic importance to the region/state. 1/2 the SOA’s population live in south central, and I pay $5000/year in taxes for the priviledge of living within the MOA’s borders, (Ugh).

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