The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is done watching from the sidelines as Skagway struggles with how to go about cleaning up decades-old contamination in the ore basin. The lead contamination poses risks to the environment and human health. But cleanup plans are stalled because of a complicated web of landowners, users, and responsibilities.
Let’s all sit down together and work this out. That’s the strategy DEC’s Contaminated Sites Program is taking with what Kara Kusche says is, admittedly, one of its most complex projects.
“On the realm of complicated, it’s definitely towards the top,” Kusche said.
One complicating factor is all the different parties involved. The Municipality of Skagway owns the ore terminal land. The private company White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad leases it. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority owns the ore terminal facility, but another company – Mineral Services operates it with business from the Yukon’s Capstone Mining.
On Monday, representatives from all of those parties met with DEC’s Kusche and her colleague John Halverson. When was the last time a meeting like this, between all of the stakeholders, took place?
“Not since I’ve been around,” said Skagway Mayor Mark Schaefer. He and five other municipal representatives took part in the three-hour discussion.
Before this, DEC has been fairly hands-off. That’s because the municipality was working out a lease extension with White Pass that would allow for the Gateway Project. The Gateway Project would give White Pass more years on its lease. And in exchange, the municipality would get access to make major renovations to the port. At the top of the list was cleaning up the contamination.
“You know, the Gateway Project was moving forward…one of the components of it was the sediment cleanup,” Kusche said. “So it sort of appeared that those pieces and plans were coming together.”
Then it fell apart. The lease extension went to a public vote and was overwhelmingly rejected. It left the municipality with lots of plans and no clear way to execute them. For the past nine months, progress has stalled. Kusche says that’s why DEC decided to step in now.
“You know in our mind we kind of viewed it as a kick-off meeting to open up the lines of communication among everybody,” she said. “So I think those goals were definitely achieved.”
Kusche and Halverson say people had different understandings of the situation at the ore terminal. For example, Halverson says some assumed that the area was slowly being capped with sedimentation over the years.
“But some of the studies done a couple of years ago indicated there’s some more erosion forces and dispersion of contaminants from that harbor area into deeper water. And we don’t want continued spread of that contamination. And it’s an issue that needs to be cleaned up.”
Halverson says one of the next steps is to distribute the most up-to-date studies and information about the site to the different representatives.
Another thing that makes the cleanup complicated is the question of who is responsible. By the State’s definition, it’s not just whoever is guilty of contaminating the area in the first place. Halverson says all of the parties involved in the meeting could be held liable for the cleanup. He says that’s one reason why DEC is trying to encourage a ‘collaborative’ approach.
Mayor Schaefer says it seemed like meeting was productive in getting everyone ‘on the same page.’
“I am very hopeful,” he said. “I’m certain something’s gonna happen.”
The department has the power to order the ore terminal stakeholders clean up the property by a certain date.
“We did discuss the option of if things don’t work, we have enforcement authorities, we’re willing to go down that path,” Halverson said.
But he says DEC would prefer to move the cleanup forward in a cooperative way.
DEC plans to hold meetings now on a regular basis with the Municipality, AIDEA, White Pass, Mineral Services, and Capstone. The next sit-down is scheduled for September. The goal is to end the stalemate and for the parties to submit a cleanup plan to DEC as soon as possible.