The municipality of Skagway expects the contamination in the town’s ore basin to be cleaned up by 2023. That’s the message the borough assembly voted to deliver to White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad after an hour-long discussion behind closed doors. It’s a tougher tone than the assembly has taken in the past few months.
Skagway officials exchanged a few letters with White Pass in the months since a tidelands lease extension between the two parties was voted down by the public. The gist of those letters was — we want to get the legacy contamination in our port cleaned up. Let’s sit down and talk about this.
The most recent response from White Pass said the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, or AIDEA, needed to be involved. AIDEA owns the ore facility and subleases the property from White Pass. The agency chimed into the discussion in late March. In a letter, AIDEA official James Hemsath said that cooperation is possible, but a lease ensuring AIDEA’s stake in the ore terminal was ‘key.’
At Thursday night’s meeting the assembly was to make a decision about what to say next to White Pass and AIDEA. They had a fairly cordial draft letter from Mayor Mark Schaefer inviting the parties to meet this month. But after about an hour in executive session, the message of letter changed.
“To send a letter to White Pass and Yukon Route, notifying them that the MOS will be expecting all leased property to be void of any contamination by the termination of the lease in 2023,” Assemblyman Dan Henry said in his motion.
The assembly unanimously voted for borough attorney Bob Blasco to send a letter to White Pass stating the municipality’s expectation that the contamination be cleaned up by 2023. That was the end of the public discussion about the letter.
KHNS reached out to Schaefer and all the borough assembly members for comment. Assemblymen Tim Cochran and Spencer Morgan were the only two who responded by deadline Friday. Here’s Cochran.
“It’s been a back and forth and we’ve been going on for seven years and not really getting anywhere,” Cochran said. “So basically it’s just okay, let’s focus on contamination. It needs to be cleaned up prior to the end of the lease. Just keep it short and simple.”
Cochran says the municipality needed to take a tougher tone with White Pass.
“Because if we’re just gonna go back and forth and nothing gets done for another seven years, the lease is gonna be over and we’re still gonna have contamination in the basin and we’re gonna have a dock that’s not viable,” Cochran said.
“If it is a little change of pace or a slight curveball, the end game and the end goal is still the same,” Morgan said. “We have something we need to get dealt with.”
Morgan said the assembly isn’t changing strategies by altering the wording in the letter, because the end goal – contamination clean-up – is the same.
“I don’t necessarily view it as a change in course,” he said. “It’s just something to get that out there to let everybody know where we stand.”
Both Morgan and Cochran said they were initially against holding the discussion in executive session. But afterwards, they said they understood that since attorney Blasco was part of the conversation, it needed to be private.
The assembly has been criticized for overusing executive session during the time that the borough was negotiating a lease extension with White Pass. A couple members of the public brought up those concerns at Thursday’s meeting.
“Your job is to do your business in public,” said port commission chair Tim Bourcy. “You are a government. You are not a private company.”
“I don’t think there’s anything to hide,” said port commissioner Tom Cochran. “And I think you’ll get a lot more support from the public if you include them.”
Bourcy and Cochran also spoke against proposed changes to borough code regarding the port commission. The assembly ultimately decided to postpone a decision on that topic to its next meeting. The assembly did not overrule a veto from Mayor Schaefer rejecting a construction oversight contract that was awarded to Chad Gubala. And, the assembly encouraged further discussion with the state on a potential ferry/cruise ship dock collaboration. KHNS will have a story about those three issues next week.
Borough Clerk Emily Deach said as of Friday afternoon, the letter from attorney Blasco to White Pass had yet be written and finalized.