Will White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad pitch in to clean up lead contamination in Skagway’s ore basin? The borough assembly hopes to get an answer to that question soon. On Monday, the assembly approved a formal letter to White Pass asking the company to agree to contamination cleanup.
Skagway officials are reigniting a conversation with White Pass that lapsed last fall when a public vote shot down a tidelands lease extension between the two parties. The municipality still has more than $7 million in state grant funds for port improvements, and it still wants to clean up and revitalize the harbor to improve Skagway’s economy.
Last week, the assembly met with White Pass President John Finlayson in a closed-door meeting. Finlayson apparently asked the assembly for specifics about what it hopes to accomplish in the tidelands currently leased by the railroad.
Aside from dealing with contamination, the city also wants to construct a floating dock for cruise ships and new ore terminal structures. But the letter to White Pass sticks to the first priority: contamination cleanup, which is estimated to cost more than $6 million.
The letter asks White Pass to share the cleanup cost between the municipality, the railroad and the sub-tenant at the terminal – AIDEA. AIDEA is the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, which owns the ore terminal.
The letter was drafted by Assemblyman Dan Henry, Port Commission Chair Tim Bourcy and Skagway lobbyist John Walsh.
It comes with an attachment listing draft project options. Option one is just the cleanup. Option two is cleanup with replacement of industrial infrastructure including an ore loader. Another option includes a floating dock add-on.
The assembly talked for a while about those project options. Assembly member Tim Cochran said he was concerned about a scenario where the cleanup happens and removes industrial infrastructure without replacing it.
“My concern looking at the options is there’s big gaps with no dock facility to tie up an ore ship or a fuel barge during this process,” he said.
Port commission vice chair Tom Cochran urged the assembly to approve the letter just to get the conversation off the ground with White Pass. He said, the details can come later.
“The letter is specifically to harbor mitigation, which begets the discussion to all these other options. Why not just get the letter out? They’re either gonna respond or not. Then you get into the details about what option you’re gonna take.”
Assembly member Angela Grieser pointed out that the municipality had already sent multiple letters to White Pass asking for cooperation.
“I would just as soon send no letter. I think we’ve sent enough letters. Why can’t White Pass come to us?” she said.
“That’s not what we’re here to do, and that’s not what we decided,” responded Mayor Mark Schaefer.
The assembly unanimously approved the letter, with some revisions. The letter, the draft port project options, and detailed information about the contamination in the ore basin were sent to White Pass this week
Another option is for the municipality to work with the state on a joint ferry-cruise ship dock. Borough manager Scott Hahn reached out to the state, but he didn’t give much detail about the conversation.
“They’re very open to ideas,” Hahn said. “There’s a very positive feel to it. I also don’t want to endanger success of this by saying too much.”
Finally, Assemblyman Steve Burnham Jr. said they needed to decide who would be representing the municipality in future conversations with White Pass. He said Henry, Bourcy and Walsh did well getting the letter together, but…
“If that’s the negotiation committee then it needs to be vetted through the assembly,” Burnham said.
The municipality requested White Pass respond to its letter by March 15.