Coast Guard gives school district until Aug. 30 to remove fuel from tanks threatened by Kuskokwim River erosion

People ride on a four wheeler in front of the Napakiak school fuel tanks, which sit less than 100 feet from the Kuskokwim River following accelerating erosion.

People ride on a four wheeler in front of the Napakiak school fuel tanks, which sit less than 100 feet from the Kuskokwim River following accelerating erosion. Pictured here on Aug. 8, 2019. (Photo by Katie Basile/KYUK)

The U.S. Coast Guard has given the Lower Kuskokwim School District until the end of the month to remove the diesel fuel from its Napakiak school fuel tanks.

The tanks hold about 36,000 gallons of fuel and are sitting less than 100 feet from the eroding Kuskokwim River bank. Both the Coast Guard and LKSD are confident that the school district can meet the deadline.

Lt. James Nunez oversees oil spill response for the Coast Guard in Western Alaska. While reading the news last week, he came across an article that caught his eye. It described the Kuskokwim River flowing dangerously close to Napakiak’s school fuel tanks.

“And I realized that one wasn’t quite on our radar,” he recalled. “So we dispatched a duty team to go do an investigation.”

The team arrived in Napakiak that week and measured 76 feet from the eroding riverbank to the nearest fuel tank. The next day, the Coast Guard issued an administrative order: LKSD must remove the fuel from the tanks by Aug. 30.

“There’s a lot at risk here, should there be a big spill of this 36,000 gallons of oil. We take protection of the environment very serious,” Nunez said.

With fall storm season looming, a struggle to keep one village school’s fuel tanks from falling into the Kuskokwim River

The Coast Guard chose the deadline after consulting with the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Geological Survey. Fall storms are approaching, which could cause more erosion, and afterwards winter ice could block shipments of equipment needed to transfer the fuel.

The Napakiak School fuel storage facility sits 76 feet from the riverbank’s erosion point, along the Kuskokwin River in Alaska, Aug. 16, 2019.

The Napakiak School fuel storage facility sits 76 feet from the riverbank’s erosion point, along the Kuskokwin River in Alaska, Aug. 16, 2019. (Public domain photo from U.S. Coast Guard)

“Two weeks should be enough time to hopefully get this situation mitigated,” Nunez said. “But then if not, we’re prepared to step in with our own emergency response contractors to deal with the issue.”

If the Coast Guard does step in, then LKSD could receive a bill to cover the cost of that work.

LKSD originally planned to transfer the fuel in March 2020, but LKSD Superintendent Dan Walker said in an email to KYUK that the district should be able to meet the Aug. 30 deadline. Walker said that the school district issued a request for proposals for a contractor to transfer the fuel and set up temporary fuel tanks on the same day the Coast Guard issued its administrative order.

Once in place, the temporary tanks will sit in the Napakiak school parking lot until a longer-term location can be found.

Nunez said that the Coast Guard has been communicating daily with LKSD since he first became aware of Napakiak’s situation. He will be sending a Coast Guard officer out to monitor the school district’s progress and provide assistance.

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