Skagway officials are digging deep to understand what exactly has happened at the town’s ore terminal in the past year. But getting ahold of the public records that have that information could cost $10,000 or more.
In February, Skagway officials filed Freedom of Information Act requests with two state agencies. The requests ask for copies of all public records related to the ore terminal between January 2015 and February 2016.
In this case, Freedom of Information requests are not going to be cost-free.
Skagway officials are concerned about what they see as a ‘changing story’ from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority regarding the ore terminal.
In 2015, a DEC inspector cited the operator of the facility, Mineral Services Inc., with a notice of violation and a notice of contamination. The notices were connected to unpermitted water discharges.
But DEC officials now say the notice of contamination was a mistake. The department is also looking to formalize environmental standards called ‘institutional controls’ for the AIDEA-owned ore terminal.
Borough Manager Scott Hahn sent FOIA requests to both agencies in February. The requests ask for all records and communication involving the ore terminal for the past year.
In a response to the municipality, AIDEA estimated it would take 85 hours of staff time to compile about 2,000 pages of documents encompassed by the FOIA request. The cost of those hours and documents is estimated at about $7,500.
DEC says the FOIA request involves about 1,700 pages of documents and 5,000 pages of emails. Copies of all those documents would come to a cost of about $1,700.
Skagway Manager Hahn says he might be willing to pay the approximately $10,000 cost estimated so far by DEC and AIDEA.
“I don’t think that’s something unreasonable if they do actually do the work that they’re talking about. But I can’t say for sure.”
DEC says it would also take an estimated 67 hours of staff time to reply to the request, but the cost of that time is not included.
“One of the unknowns is what administrative rate are they going to charge for the person who does the administrative work, the copying and whatever,” Hahn said.
Gary Mendivil at DEC wrote the department’s FOIA response. He says he didn’t calculate the cost of the staff time because he was hoping Hahn would reduce what he asked for in the request to ‘something more manageable.’
Hahn says he would consider narrowing the request, but he needs more information first. He says he doesn’t know what the limit is for how much the municipality is willing to pay for information about the ore terminal.
For transactions more than $5,000, the manager needs approval from the chair of the borough finance committee, Dan Henry. For expenses above $25,000, he needs approval from the borough assembly.