This ski season, the snow making machines at Arizona Snowbowl Resort will be spraying treated wastewater (100% sewage effluent) on their slopes to make “snow.” The United States Forest Service approved the plan in 2005, but lawsuits brought by environmentalists and resident Indian tribes delayed its implementation until February of this year when a federal appeals court ruled in its favor. Though an appeal is still pending, that hasn’t stopped the government and Snowbowl from chopping down trees and laying pipe along the 15 mile sewer-water route up the mountain.

Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity, an appeal plaintiff, called the plan,  “a disaster, culturally and environmentally.” His main worries are the impact on the mountain’s unique alpine tundra and human health should any tumbling skiers ingest some of the sewage “snow.”

Indians from 12 tribes say the project will ruin a mountain they consider sacred ground, a place where they pray, conduct ceremonies and gather herbs, many for medicinal purposes. Even with their plan approval, the Forest Service acknowledges “the tribal perspective of the effects of ‘scarring’ on the sacred landscape and the associated spiritual and cultural impacts may in fact be considered irreversible in nature.”

When the wastewater melts, added Rob Smith of the Sierra Club, it “could degrade the water quality of the aquifers.” (In other words, poison the below ground water system).

In reply, the Forest Service, which owns Snowbowl’s land, claims the high standard of the wastewater is just below drinking water quality and is already used to irrigate golf courses and parks. Along with the federal study, the city of Flagstaff also hired scientist, Catherine R. Propper to conduct a study.  What she found in the treated sewage water was an alarming conglomeration of hormones, antibiotics, antidepressants, pharmaceuticals and steroids. “We don’t know what effect freezing and thawing is going to have” on these chemicals, she admitted. “We don’t know what UV is going to do to them. Some of the compounds will bind to the soil; some will get into the aquifers. It is a very complicated system that we know very little about.”

Amazingly, the disturbing compounds found by Propper were not mentioned anywhere in the Forest Service’s impact assessment because they are not included in the status list of chemicals in federal guidelines.  On a federal level that makes them nonexistent. The EPA claims it is now actually studying these chemicals. And Flagstaff and Snowball both say that IF these endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) DO become regulated, they will “scale treatment to come into compliance.”

For a plan with such significant, large-scale implications, there are still an awful lot of IFs floating around. For 10 years Klee Benally, an activist and Navajo Indian has been fighting the resort’s expansion plans to cut down 74 acres of forest and pump treated sewage water onto the mountain. Of these business plans, he said, “It’s an Old West mentality: let’s go forward and assess the damage later.’ Just as the first mining companies did, when they gouged minerals from western lands without regulation or concern for consequences and left behind a legacy of environmental degradation.

What I wonder is how many skiers will want to take on the double whammy of skiing on treated sewage water snow that’s also packed with endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Or do you, like the Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce, see packing the mountain with layers of sewage water snow as a lucrative and feasible proposition?

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