Contaminated soil puts Juneau arts campus construction on hold

Construction vehicles sit idle at Sealaska Heritage Institute's arts campus construction site in downtown Juneau on Oct. 5, 2020.
Construction vehicles sit idle at Sealaska Heritage Institute’s arts campus site in downtown Juneau on Oct. 5, 2020. Workers discovered soil contaminated with what’s likely heating fuel, putting the project on hold. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Construction began in August on Sealaska Heritage Institute’s future arts campus in downtown Juneau. But they found contaminated soil, which may affect the institute’s goal to have it complete in time for Celebration next year.  

The site in downtown Juneau ought to be busy with construction work. Instead, earth movers sit idle inside the fenced-off site. 

“Believe me, it’s aggravating for me to look out the window and not see anything happening,” said Lee Kadinger, chief operating officer of Sealaska Heritage Institute. His office with the cultural nonprofit is across the street from the construction site. “We’re waiting for soil testing to come back, and so things are just kind of on hold.” 

He said workers took several soil samples early on. One had low levels of contamination. The rest were clean. But when excavation got going in earnest, it became apparent they had a more substantial problem. He said there’s likely heating fuel or diesel in the soil. 

“Prior to Sealaska’s ownership, there was a gas station on the site that was there I believe until the ‘60s or thereabouts. But, you know, there’s also many underground, buried fuel tanks that are in the downtown area uphill from the site,” he said.  

Kadinger said the institute is working with the state Department of Environmental Conservation on a plan to deal with the bad soil, which will take time and money. It’s not clear how much.  

“You know, we don’t really have all the answers yet, as to the totality of that,” Kadinger said. 

For example, he said depending what’s in the soil, they may be able to dispose of it locally — or they may have to ship it to Seattle. 

Kadinger said the institute is looking into ways to recover some of the cost of dealing with it. Like insurance, finding liable past owners and grants from state or federal agencies. 

“And you know, again, those things just take time to work out, so those are all things that we’re looking at,” he said. 

The institute wants to open its new arts campus by the end of next summer, in time for Celebration. That’s the once-every-two-years festival of Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures. There was a virtual version this year because of the pandemic, and they plan to hold a belated in-person Celebration next year

The institute has already raised most of the original $13 million price tag for the project. The Juneau Assembly is considering a $1.5 million grant that would get the institute almost the rest of the way. The Assembly scheduled the grant for its first reading on Oct. 26 and public hearing and final vote on Nov. 23. 

But in committee last week, a few Assembly members said they weren’t sure it was a good time to spend that money, with so much uncertainty around the city’s finances. 

Kadinger made an economic argument, saying the project is expected to create 55 jobs and lead to millions of dollars of economic impact. He also told the Assembly that if the grant were delayed, “Pretty much what would end up happening is pausing everything in a big, muddy, dirty contaminated hole for months.” 

For now, the site is a dirty, contaminated hole while the institute works with regulators on a plan to clean it up.

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