Smelly situation - Page 3

Smelly situation: Sewage spill and other problems plague new Alcatraz ferry operator

Last departure at 19:50 is only half full — not a normal occurrence."

"I can't remember an incident like that where the park service cancelled the cell-house sweep and let people stay on the island," said Steve Ongerth, who worked for Blue and Gold for almost 10 years.

Yet the sewage problem on Alcatraz goes beyond the growing pains of a new operator. Miller said it's difficult to keep the tanks from overflowing without pumping while passengers are boarding, even though the NPS discourages doing that because of the smell.

"Toilets are high priority for NPS," Miller said. "They said, 'No, you can't pump when passengers are boarding,' but we couldn't keep up with it. We had to keep up with the schedule and keep up with the demands of the sewage."

"The boats were pretty smelly sometimes," Weideman told us. Customer complaints caused the NPS to change the rules about when to pump, which led Blue and Gold to start adding special trips to the island, before and after the tourist runs, just to pump sewage.

Alcatraz Cruises can't keep up either and has spent $300,000 on a new vessel designed to function as a workboat for the fleet — pumping sewage off the island and fresh water onto it, removing trash, and delivering special loads that would otherwise require a barge.

"Our goal is to keep the visitor's experience pleasant," said Paul Bishop, director of Marine Operations for Alcatraz Cruises. "That's the whole reason we went to this second boat, to keep sewage away from the passengers."

"Ideally, we want to have Alcatraz completely self-sufficient," Weideman said, within a time frame of "five years optimistically, 10 years realistically." The plan would be to install waterless urinals and composting toilets, use the gray water and manure in the island's historic gardens, power the systems with solar panels, and lube the backup generators with biodiesel.

While technology is a bit of a hindrance at this point, funding is the bigger hurdle. Tickets to Alcatraz just went up three dollars, to $21.75, but the list of deferred maintenance is long, and solar panels would require an additional financial boost from a donor.

With the hopes of drawing open those wallets, the NPS has focused on the "enhanced visitor experience," said Ricardo Perez, superintendent of the island. He envisions revolving exhibits, special events, and facilities offering catered conferences. "We want to be an example for other parks." *