Last week, the Skagway Assembly got a rundown of a risk assessment of the ore basin, completed last month. KHNS’s Abbey Collins has more details on the report that plays into port negotiations with White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad.
The report was prepared by Golder Associates for the railroad. White Pass President John Finlayson spoke at the assembly meeting.
“We continue to be open with the process,” said Finlayson. “We have no agenda other than to find out what’s there, what needs to be done to address what’s there, and to initiate…the appropriate plan to address the needs and the risk in the ore basin.”
This is a really complicated and long report. One of the authors, Blair McDonald, helped break it down for the assembly. McDonald is an environmental scientist with Golder.
He said, the process for completing the assessment included reviewing historical data, identifying gaps in that data, and figuring out if metals in the sediment at the ore basin are creating a risk that needs to be addressed right away.
“One thing that the historical data shows us quite clearly, is that there is a hotspot of metal contamination related to the ore concentrates,” said McDonald. “Unsurprisingly, that is right around the ore loader. So every investigation that went in there.”
McDonald said Golder sought to answer some key questions. First, how does sediment move around the ore basin? And, are there negative effects on organisms living at the bottom of the basin? If yes, what’s causing it?
He also wanted to know if metals are accumulating in organisms and whether it’s something to be concerned about.
“We’re thinking about food chains, we’re thinking about both the environment and that food chain does inevitably involve humans at some point along the way,” said McDonald.
And finally, if yes, what should be done to fix the problem?
McDonald laid out the conclusions. First, the sediment.
“Unsurprisingly, a lot of sediment comes out of the Skagway [River], comes back and it is coming back into the ore basin and that acts as a cap, which is a good thing. Appreciate that a cap also means it’s getting shallower which is a bad thing, but there’s a tradeoff, for sure, in that respect,” said McDonald.
And, effects on organisms. They tested eleven samples from different parts of the harbor.
“Only three of the samples from the harbor passed this criteria that we’ve adopted from the Washington State guidance,” said McDonald. “Samples that are far away from the ore basin also failed. And they’re failing despite the fact that they have no elevated concentrations of metals.”
McDonald said, there is metal accumulation in some shellfish, though not every type. And not all of every sample.
“Accumulation is occurring,” said McDonald. “It’s pretty hard to argue against that. But I do take some comfort in the fact that there’s this downward trend over time.”
But, they found something else in the samples.
“The samples we had collected, we had archived them, kept them cold and dark, the way the requirements are. What we found is, over time they generate ammonia,” said McDonald.
According to McDonald, that tends to mean there is a wastewater influence.
“We had lots of information that was suggesting quite strongly that the metals we thought were the problem may be far less of an issue than we would have expected based on those bulk concentrations,” said McDonald. “But we also have indicators that wastewater influences could be a factor.”
Golder has a recommendation for White Pass.
“Yes the direct effects from metals or ore concentrate metals appear to be limited,” said McDonald. “Yes there may be other factors that influence the sediment quality that is currently in the bottom of the ore basin. But that continued concentration of metals in shellfish is something that I don’t think should be ignored.”
McDonald says that means removal.
“You really should consider a targeted removal of the worst of that material,” said McDonald. “This is a very common risk strategy. You remove the mass. It’s not about just going to a particular concentration and just kind of manipulating it. You just go in there and you get as much out as you reasonably can.”
Golder is not done yet. McDonald said a subsequent report will have an analysis of options and details on remediation. Assemblyman Orion Hanson asked about the timeline
“So we’ve worked a long time on an MOU,” said Hanson. “And part of that MOU is predicated on cleaning up this ore basin. When do you think your report for the remediation process will be due? Because we don’t have a whole lot of time before we have to meet the needs of the cruise ship industry.”
That, said McDonald, is not clear. Right now, a stakeholder meeting is being organized with the Department of Environmental Conservation. White Passes Finlayson has said a public information session with be organized after that.