50 years after a fuel spill near Haines, there are federal plans to clean up the Chilkat River

The Chilkat River at sunset.
The Chilkat River at sunset. (Photo by Claire Stremple/KHNS)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is seeking input on its plan to clean up a fifty-year-old fuel spill that’s polluting soil and water on the Chilkat River near Haines.

The U.S. Army built an 8-inch diameter steel pipeline to carry fuel over 600 miles from Haines to Fairbanks in the 1950s. It operated for over a decade and over that time there were numerous spills. One of them was a rupture at a pump station near Haines in the late 1960s.

“Approximately 33,600 gallons of fuel were released, ” said Will Mangano, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers technical lead of the project. That’s about 800 barrels of fuel.

Programs to clean up environmental damage like this did not exist when the spill happened. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that a federal program to organize clean-up for spills and other pollution was established by congress. The program is called FUDS—the Formerly Used Defense Sites. It determined there were upwards of 500 cleanup sites in Alaska.

At the time, the army dug up the soil around the leak and burned the fuel.

“That was basically the extent of the cleanup that occurred after the release was identified. Definitely contamination made its way into the subsurface in the area and it has remained there ever since,” Mangano said.

Fifty-two years later, there’s finally a plan to clean it up.

The contaminated area is on the bank of the Chilkat River—a food source for Haines and Klukwan and spawning grounds for all five species of Pacific salmon.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers focused in on the Haines spill site in 2012 and found gasoline, diesel, and benzene in the nearby soil and groundwater. A few years later they noticed oily sheen on the surface of the Chilkat River slough. Surface water samples showed that contamination levels warranted a clean-up. Contaminants were found up to fourteen feet deep in the soil.

“It’s still causing risk to human health and the environment,” said Anne Marie Palmieri, an Environmental Systems Specialist for Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Alaska DEC regulates cleanup at the site, and Palmieri is the Project Manager.

“It’s really exciting to me to get to this point where we are going to actually start digging up some dirt,” she said.

Per the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) the Army Corps of Engineers came up with a range of clean-up options. Their preferred alternative is the most rigorous. They’ll excavate 17,500 tons of contaminated soil and treat it with a process called “land farming” to neutralize the contamination. They’ll backfill with clean soil and materials that should keep any remaining contamination from spreading. They won’t excavate all the contaminated soil because that would mean digging up a portion of the Haines Highway.

If the plan moves forward, the U.S. Army Corps is still bound to monitor soil and water at the site in perpetuity or until no contaminants are detected.

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