Representatives from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation were in Skagway Monday to meet separately with borough and White Pass officials. The meetings were focused on the ore terminal. A planned clean-up of legacy contamination in the ore basin is in limbo following voters’ rejection of a tidelands lease last fall. Skagway officials are also seeking answers from DEC about what some see as a changing story over recent events at the ore terminal.
DEC oversees contaminated sites in the state, including the Skagway Ore Terminal. The facility is owned by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, or AIDEA. It’s run by a company called Mineral Services.
In April of 2015, a DEC inspector cited Mineral Services with a notice of violation and a notice of contamination for unpermitted water discharges. But later, the agency rescinded the notice of contamination. A DEC official told KHNS it was a mistake. The notice of violation was closed out in the following months.
Some Skagway officials questioned DEC’s reversal on the notice of contamination. DEC Environmental Program Manager John Halverson says that’s something he discussed with Mayor Mark Schaefer and borough attorney Bob Blasco during Monday’s meeting.
“I understand that concern, we did talk about that,” Halverson says. “And obviously DEC wouldn’t want to see contamination of an area either, so the water that was observed coming out of hoses there was potable water, it was clean water, and so I think that the city’s much more comfortable with the situation and it’s unfortunate there was some confusion over it.”
Halverson says previous statements from DEC that storm water, gray water and equipment wash water were being disposed of without a permit are ‘outdated.’ He says there was no violation or contamination.
Mayor Schaefer did not respond to requests for comment by deadline for this story.
The discharges at the ore terminal weren’t the only concern for municipal officials. In February, DEC sent out a letter notifying stakeholders that they were formalizing ‘institutional controls’ at the ore terminal. Institutional controls are conditions the state puts in place after a site goes through some clean-up, but contaminants still remain. They were implemented around the 1989 uplands clean-up at the ore terminal, but DEC says they were never formalized.
“The whole concept is to just make sure the property’s managed in a way that doesn’t result in contaminants being spread or moved around or people being exposed to contaminants,” says Halverson. “It’s really just formalizing what was agreed to and making sure people are aware of it today.”
Halverson says the initiative to formalize controls is something DEC is doing across all contaminated sites, not just this one. But Skagway Borough Manager Scott Hahn found the timing of the letter questionable enough that he sent Freedom of Information Act requests to both DEC and AIDEA. The requests ask for communication related to the ore terminal.
The state agencies responded to the requests, saying they would cost thousands of dollars to fulfill. Hahn says he is waiting to hear from the borough assembly on whether to proceed with the FOIA process.
As for the institutional controls agreement, the municipality still has not signed off on it. And, neither has White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. The railroad leases the ore terminal property from the municipality, and subleases it to AIDEA. White Pass official Tyler Rose also met with DEC Monday. He says it was a productive meeting. But not all of his questions about the institutional controls have been answered either.
“Not in whole, not in whole, no,” Rose says. “I think all the way around there needs to be a greater understanding.”
Rose says the majority of the discussion centered on the need to clean up the contamination in the ore basin. The clean-up has been in limbo for about eight months now. It was bundled into the Gateway Project, a plan to renovate and expand Skagway’s port. But that plan was contingent on a lease renewal between Skagway and White Pass, which has control of much of the port until 2023. Since the contract was rejected in the public vote last fall, talks between the parties have stalled.
“There is some heavy metals contamination in the sediments there from historical operations,” says Halverson. “And it really should’ve been cleaned up previously. And I guess we’ve kind of re-engaged and want to make sure it gets done properly and in a timely manner.”
He says DEC has not given the municipality or White Pass a deadline to complete the remediation. But, he plans to try to set up a meeting with the ore terminal stakeholders to help things move along.
In recent public discussions between the mayor, assembly and port commission, the majority has agreed that the municipality needs to re-engage with White Pass to take care of port issues, including contamination clean-up. No meetings between the municipality and railroad have been set.