Earlier this month, a concerned tugboat captain reported ore dust apparently falling into the Skagway harbor near the ore terminal. An investigation found that the dust likely resulted after an incident early July 8. A pan holding copper concentrate was mangled during the startup of the ship-loading process. But the investigation concludes that it’s ‘very unlikely’ the ore material found its way into the ocean. Some Skagway municipal officials don’t think that’s the whole story.
Dave Hunz is president of Mineral Services, the company that operates the ore terminal. At about 3:30 a.m. on July 8, Mineral Services was getting ready to load copper concentrate from the Yukon’s Minto Mine onto a ship bound for Asia. Hunz says a dust pan on the bottom of the conveyor caught on a section of the ship loader. He says about 250 pounds of copper concentrate fell onto the hold of the ship.
“When it got hung up [it] fell into the open hatch cover,” Hunz said. “And then in the process of replacing it, which was over the closed hatch cover, then there was about eight five-gallon buckets that we knew of product that was in there that fell to the deck that we shoveled and swept up, put it in five-gallon buckets. So everything was contained, we knew it was there.”
The incident was investigated by Mineral Services safety coordinator Craig Franke. In his report, Franke says about two wheelbarrows worth of material was swept up and brought back to the warehouse. It took about six hours to clean up the spill and replace the broken equipment. Around 9 a.m., Mineral Services resumed loading about 11 thousand tons of copper concentrate onto the ship.
“I feel we handled it very well, we knew what we were up against, we had the repair parts on hand. We dealt with the repairs effectively, sealed it back up. Cleaned up any residual material that escaped when were doing the repair work on the dust pan,” Hunz said.
“The potential violator was allowed to self-investigate,” said Skagway Borough Manager Scott Hahn.
Hahn says he would have expected the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, which oversees environmental standards at the ore terminal, to conduct an inspection.
“Or at least have a third party or somebody go out there that’s not associated with the potential violator to see what they could find out,” Hahn said.
“Given that DEC is not in Skagway, we do expect the operators to conduct their own investigation,” said Kara Kusche with DEC. “They’re on site and can respond in a much more timely manner.”
The big question is whether any of the ore made its way into the water. Hunz says no. He says the damaged dust pan was not over the water, and he’s confident that no material fell into the ocean. There’s about a 36-inch gap between the dock and the ship.
Mineral Services inspector Franke agreed with that conclusion. He examined the scene and interviewed staff at about 11 a.m. the same day. He says in his report it’s ‘highly unlikely’ any ore fell into the water. He goes on to say that given the location of the damaged dust pan, it’s ‘virtually impossible’ for it to have been over any open water. Franke concludes that what tugboat captain Mike Korsmo observed was likely airborne dust from the replacement of the damaged pan.
But Mayor Mark Schaefer says he saw evidence that ore material did fall outside of the ship.
“I spent four years in that facility I know what ore looks like, I know what it feels like, I picked some of it up, I felt it,” Schaefer said.
He says he visited the site a couple days after the incident and saw ore dust lying on the dock next to the water’s edge.
“We think that likely something ended up on the dock and in the water as well,” Schaefer said. “I’m not saying this was large quantities or anything like that, but it’s obvious, you can see it.”
Borough Manager Hahn wrote an email to DEC last week saying that they failed to do an adequate investigation. He included Schaefer’s observations. DEC’s Kusche says she had considered the investigation complete, until she saw Hahn’s email saying ore dust was visible on the dock.
“So I emailed Mark [Tuesday] morning asking him to get in contact with me so that I can discuss his observations,” Kusche told KHNS.
Kusche told KHNS she will pass the information to the DEC Spill Prevention and Response team. It is uncertain whether DEC will open its own investigation.
Hunz says he never saw the ore dust that Schaefer talked about. He says whatever it came from, it wasn’t connected to the July 8 incident.
“We run a good, clean operation here that’s been permitted through the state,” Hunz said.
Hahn and Schaefer say they hope to bring up the incident in an upcoming meeting between ore terminal stakeholders. DEC’s Kusche sent a letter requesting a meeting to the municipality, White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority and Mineral Services.
Kusche says the meeting is not connected to the July 8 incident. She says it stems from a larger concern about cleaning up the legacy contamination in the ore basin.
A planned clean-up of the decades-old contamination stalled last fall when Skagway voters rejected a tidelands lease extension between the municipality and White Pass. Since then, the borough hasn’t been able to negotiate access to the ore basin.
Kusche says the meeting will take place August 8, to discuss the ‘roadblocks’ hindering the cleanup and the plans and timeframe in which the remediation will occur.