Before contamination in Skagway harbor is cleaned up, some want another study

Skagway Ore Terminal/AIDEA photo
The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is taking a more proactive approach to motivate cleanup of the ore basin in Skagway. It brought together harbor owners and users to meet in-person and work toward a solution to long-standing lead contamination in the harbor. (Photo by AIDEA)

Skagway is getting closer to addressing long-standing lead contamination in the harbor.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is taking a more proactive approach to motivate cleanup of the ore basin.

The department brought together the complicated web of harbor owners and users to meet in-person and work toward a solution.

The most recent meeting happened the week of Thanksgiving.

Representatives from DEC, the Skagway Borough, White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, and other stakeholders sat down together on Nov. 21 in Anchorage.

The meeting lasted about an hour and consisted mostly of a presentation from Golder Associates, an environmental engineering company.

“We reviewed 13 reports that covered a span of almost 30 years that were previously done for the ore basin,” said Golder hydrologist Tamra Reynolds.

Golder was hired by White Pass to analyze previous studies and make a recommendation on the best course of action.

“It’s been a highly studied site, but there hadn’t been a consolidation of all the work,” said White Pass executive Tyler Rose.

His company is involved because they lease the ore terminal land from the municipality, which owns it.

White Pass and the municipality are just two of several ore terminal stakeholders.

Others include the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, Mineral Services Inc., and the Yukon’s Capstone Mining.

So, Golder reviewed the existing information.

“Their conclusion was that they needed to do more analysis,” said Steve Burnham Jr., a Skagway Borough Assembly member who attended the meeting.

Golder recommends more research before doing anything with the contamination. Reynolds said they want to do a risk assessment.

“In order to clean it up, you need to know where the areas of high risk are,” she said. “And then you can identify the best way to clean it up.”

Reynolds says there isn’t just one way to clean up a contaminated site.

“The way that’s been proposed to date is dredging,” Reynolds said. “Dredging is often worse for the ecosystem because you’re then suspending it into the water as you’re pulling it out. So what we want to make sure is we don’t cause more harm to the environment than potentially other solutions.”

The risk assessment would involve studying the mussels, crabs and fish in the area for toxicity.

“We want to take away those question marks,” Reynolds said. “We want to see if there are potential health affects, rather than just speculation about it.”

If the risk assessment finds there is only danger in certain “hot spots,” then remediation might be limited to those sections. Or, if it finds no risk, then there might not be any clean up needed.

But Burnham said the question of risk has already been answered.

“We have done enough testing on the waterfront and we’ve gotten the result showing us that there is a risk to leaving the contamination there,” Burnham said.

DEC site project manager Kara Kusche realized that some in Skagway want the cleanup to happen as soon as possible. The risk assessment plan is progress compared with the stalemate that’s lasted for much of the past year, she said.

“We are actually very happy,” Kusche said.

She said this is what DEC wanted when they gathered the various parties involved in the ore terminal in August. DEC directed them to come up with a solution. White Pass taking the initiative and paying for Golder to evaluate the current data and prepare for a risk assessment is a good step forward, Kusche said.

“We would be able to make some decisions about whether it’s best to leave contamination in place or treat or remove contamination,” Kusche said.

In the past, progress has stalled because there are different ideas about who is culpable for the clean-up. But DEC told the municipality, White Pass, and other groups that all of them are “potentially responsible parties.”

The next step is for Golder to draw up and present a work plan to DEC and the other parties in early 2017.

The company said it could complete its testing and finalize the data by the end of 2017.

That timeline doesn’t sound acceptable to everyone.

Burnham said if a risk assessment does happen, then it needs to be faster than that.

He doesn’t want to kick the can down the road another year.

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