Bill would exempt utility companies from pesticide pollution

Power poles in Anchorage in June 2010. Most poles in the state are treated with a pesticide called Penta. A bill making its way through the Alaska Senate would protect utility companies from liability for pesticide pollution from power poles. (Creative Commons photo by Antti T. Nissinen)

A bill that would protect power companies from liability related to a widely used pesticide is moving through the Alaska Senate. Federal wildlife officials have already alerted the state they’ve found “concerning levels” of the toxic compound on the Kenai Peninsula.

There are about a quarter million wooden power poles in Alaska. Most are treated with a pesticide marketed as Penta which is short for Pentachlorophenol. It’s been around since the 1930s.

SB 173’s sponsor is Sen. Peter Micciche. The Kenai Peninsula Republican told the Senate Resources Committee that protecting power companies from liability is important for consumers.

“The reason for bringing this forward is the financial protection of nearly every Alaskan ratepayer who depends upon a utility to have electricity delivered to their home, business or facility,” he said.

In 2015, biologists working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service discovered what it termed “concerning levels” of the pesticide in soils around power poles running through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

The refuge manager notified the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation in January 2016. State regulators then wrote to Homer Electric Association saying the utility would be responsible for any contamination since it owns the poles.

Homer Electric’s General Manager Brad Janorschke testified to the Senate committee that it would be expensive if they had to remove the poles, especially as they’d need to be barged south for disposal.

“The cost to remove a single utility pole from service and comply with a lengthy site cleanup process would be about $30,000,” he said “30,000 bucks a pole.”

Fish and Wildlife has yet to publish its findings, but its correspondence with the state – and raw data from the soil samples – were released to the Alaska Community Action on Toxics.

Pamela Miller is the Anchorage-based environmental group’s executive director. She says the group filed a Freedom of Information Act request when they found out about the studies on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

She’s alarmed that the power industry wants the law changed.

“This particular study by the Fish and Wildlife Service may have been at least the primary impetus for the utilities to seek a political solution to their problem,” she said.

There’s been push back on the Resources Committee. Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, said the bill would shift liability for contamination away from the utilities and onto property owners.

“I’m concerned that nobody’s going to be responsible,” he said. “I mean, should the manufacturer possibly be responsible? Should the person who’s applying it be responsible? It would seem to me, there should be some responsibility somewhere other than the person who has absolutely no say about where these poles go.”

The Department of Environmental Conservation is studying the issue.

“We know what the product does and its toxicity. That’s been clearly defined by EPA,” said Kristin Ryan who heads DEC’s spill response and prevention division.

She told Senators that recent samples were taken to see whether the pesticide leaches power poles. She said DEC doesn’t expect results for at least several weeks.

Jacob Resneck, CoastAlaska

Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director based in Juneau. CoastAlaska is our partner in Southeast Alaska. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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