Testing connected to the former Army tank farm in Haines found what investigators say is a “surprising” amount of underground contamination at Tanani Point Beach.
People have known for decades about traces of contamination in the water that seeps from the ground to the surface of the beach.
Recent testing appears to solve the mystery of where exactly those pollutants come from.
“On Tanani Beach, we really didn’t expect to find this contamination as much as we saw out on the beach,” said Arden Bailey, who works for North Wind, one of the contractors testing the tank farm soil and groundwater for contamination.
Bailey gave a presentation at a recent Restoration Advisory Board meeting. That’s the local group the Army Corps of Engineers updates as it works toward environmental restoration.
The contamination at the former fuel depot is decades old, from when the U.S. military operated the Haines-Fairbanks pipeline during the Cold War without much environmental oversight.
The fuel terminal was shut down in 1971.
Over the years, there have been a series of attempts to clean it up.
Right now, the Army Corps is working toward what it hopes will be a final remedy. The investigation to map the contamination is moving into its third summer.
Tanani Point Beach was first mentioned at this meeting by Luke Williams, who works for the Chilkoot Indian Association.
“I went down at low tide ‘cause I like to look for crab and stuff,” Williams said. “There was a very, very strong odor, like a 55-gallon drum of diesel spilled. It was very, very strong.”
The smell could have come from seep water on the beach.
For years, the Army has tested the water that rises from underground to the surface, also called seep.
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation environmental program specialist Anne Marie Palmieri said tests show the seep has low levels of diesel-range organics.
According to DEC standards, those levels don’t pose a risk to humans.
“I wouldn’t say that it is a risk to humans to come into contact with it because the levels are so low,” Palmieri said. “At the same time, I wouldn’t encourage people to play in that.”
The levels of contamination in the seep haven’t changed, but the understanding of its origin has.
Palmieri and others thought it stemmed from an old burn pit right above the beach. But the burn pit was cleaned up in 2004, and the traces of diesel in the seep didn’t dissipate.
So, where was that contamination coming from?
“You have the contamination in the tank farm and it goes through a really narrow channel before it then spreads out at the beach,” Bailey said. “We didn’t expect to find maybe as much as we did across the road.”
Bailey explained that based on North Wind’s testing, the contamination moved from the tank farm’s administration area, underground, across the road, to the beach.
Palmieri said that solves a mystery.
“To know that there’s this other source for the contamination in the seep water is really wonderful,” Palmieri said. “To know that OK it wasn’t the burn pit, but there’s this other source, there’s something we can address to keep this from continuing to migrate.”
Since the newly-discovered pollution is underground, it probably does not pose much of a hazard to people recreating on the beach, Palmieri said.
The surprise of the underground contamination at Tanani Beach has prompted North Wind to put more focus on that area during their testing this summer.
There are also plans to conduct more testing along the beach around the old fuel terminal dock and the Lutak burn pit.
Then, the Army Corps’ contractors will take the three years of data they’ve gathered and draw up a remedial investigation report.
The report will include information about what kind of risk the contamination at the tank farm and the neighboring beaches might pose to people and animals who frequent the area.
After that, it will probably take years to reach a final cleanup.