'Poo Mountain': Sewage to Snow on Ski Resort?

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This ski season an Arizona resort is planning to use sewage to make snow for its slopes. Green destination or gross desecration? Opposite sides of the poo mountain proposal are battling it out.

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Following approval from a Federal Appeals Court in February, the Arizona Snowbowl resort will be the first in the world to use treated sewage effluent to manufacture snow. Located in Flagstaff, the ski slopes are on U.S. Forest Service land. Environmental groups and 13 Native American tribes formed a coalition to fight the plan. For the tribes, the mountain is considered sacred.

A regional forester told New York Times reporter Leslie Macmillan that the treated water will be a step below drinking water and on par with water currently used elsewhere for irrigating golf courses. For the resort, making snow with sewage would be an economical way to stay in business, regardless of the weather. Ski season represents as much as $35 million for Flagstaff's economy.

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Mamillan interviewed Catherine R. Propper, a scientist and Northern Arizona University professor hired by the city of Flagstaff, to test the water. While she said accidentally getting a mouthful of the snow wouldn't make a difference, she did raise concerns about a number of chemicals found in the wastewater, including hormones, antidepressants, pharmaceuticals and steroids.

"We don't know what UV is going to do to them," she told the New York Times. "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."

The feds ignored the chemicals when evaluating the plan, but the EPA is studying them now. Environmentalists protesting the sewage snow worry that all those chemicals could destroy the mountain tundra and impact human health as well.

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I like creative reuse as much as the next environmentalist, but the lack of extensive scientific testing here concerns me. Skimping on filtration might be cheaper in the short-term, but it could ultimately hurt the very business the resort wants to save. In the meantime, if you do ski the sewage snow this season, don't wipe out.

Photo: The Arizona Snowball ski slopes in winter. Credit: Flickr user Willow&Monk.

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