Myron McGahan is in the process of completing a home he built by hand for his wife and kids in Nikiski. He dreams of using the house as a model for others on a larger subdivision he planned on 51 acres he owns.
However, a local oil field support services company wants to build an oil drilling waste disposal site adjacent to the McGahan property.
“It has basically ruined anything we’ve planned for our future or our kids’ future because no one is going to buy a house next to a waste dump,” Myron said sitting at his kitchen table with his wife Gergana. “No one will, in their right mind, I guess.”
The McGahans, along with others, are spearheading an effort to stop the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation from issuing AIMM Technologies a permit to build a monofill to accept drilling waste from Cook Inlet oil and gas exploration and production activities. The drilling waste generally contains soil, gravel, drilling muds and sometimes hydrocarbons.
They fear their efforts will fail, Myron said.
Gergana runs a Facebook group with 511 members opposing the waste site and the couple has collected about 100 signed letters of opposition to the proposal they will send to the state. Gergana updates the group’s page often with links to news stories, state and borough documents and posts the address where residents can send their public comments for the state to consider.
Chief among Myron’s concerns, he said, is that the facility will change the hydrology in the area and affect a site located a few steps away that was contaminated in 1982. Oil waste and sludge was dumped at an adjacent property and Myron fears the AIMM proposal will exacerbate the spread of existing contaminates into groundwater.
He said he wonders why a company would build such a site — one designed to hold 16,000 tons of waste — a quarter mile from his home, about a half mile from Nikiski’s main drinking water system, Cook Inlet waters and numerous other residences and businesses.
“I know there are environmental solutions that are far better than this,” Myron said. “I’ve been told about the environmental solutions and there are other people after those solutions locally. I would like to see more local input in it and it not put in the heart of Nikiski.”
He said he also wonders why AIMM or the state hasn’t scheduled a public meeting to address local concerns.
“The people don’t want it out here,” he said. “But people are scared to talk because their job is in oil and I’ve ran into that with friends I’ve known for 20 years.”
AIMM, a Texas-based company with a North Kenai office, is permitting for 15,000 tons per year of drilling waste and 1,000 tons per year of nonhazardous hydrocarbon contaminated soil to be stored at the monofill — a landfill intended only for a single type of waste. The site is in Nikiski near the end of Bakers Road on a 10-acre property owned by Hugh Chumley. Chumley, a longtime contractor and businessman, also served as chief of staff to former Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dave Carey from 2008-2010.
According to the permit, waste will be first treated at the drilling site to remove excess water prior to transport. Those remaining solids will be drill cuttings, which are returned to the surface from drilling activities with a drilling mud that acts as a lubricant in the exploration process, said Kelly Martin, Alaska Regional Manager for AIMM Technologies. Martin said the site would accommodate and encourage oil and gas exploration in Cook Inlet by a host of smaller, independent companies.
The permitted hydrocarbon contaminated soil would be nonhazardous, Martin said.
“Still contaminated with hydrocarbons, but not to a level that would make the waste hazardous,” he said in a recent interview.
The monofill would be a system of three lined cells that can be permanently capped with an impermeable liner and covered with a layer of topsoil so vegetation can be replanted on top of it, Martin said. Each cell will be double-lined with a leak detection system installed between layers designed to notify the operator if there is a breech in the primary liner, he said. Martin said the only excavation needed to construct the site would be removal of top soil and overburden.
The facility design also includes annual groundwater monitoring at six locations around the facility. Martin said the facility would likely not accept hydraulic fracturing fluid.
AIMM originally considered an open pit cell design, which would have limited the facility to receiving inert waste such as dirt, mud and gravel with no liquids.
“In order to expand what the facility could accept, we decided to ... classify it as a drilling waste monofill and according to the DEC regulations it is required to have a double liner with leak detection system in there,” Martin said Friday while standing near the proposed pit.
“The difference when you go to a drilling waste monofill is that you can pump the material in there as a slurry but eventually you have to treat the liquid fraction of that. It also opened up an opportunity for us to be able to accept hydrocarbon-based drilling fluids and production fluids and it gives us an opportunity to recover the oil. So not only is it a disposal site but it also becomes a resource recovery and recycling opportunity.”
A property located steps away and cater-cornered from the proposed AIMM site has a long history of contamination, according to DEC information.
The site was used by Dave Brown of MAR Enterprises to store drums of hazardous materials in the early 1980s, according to the state’s contamination report. DEC staff wrote in the report that 56 drums of drag reducing agent were disposed on the site and two underground sewer systems used to dispose non-domestic wastewaters and oil have been excavated and the polluted soils spread on the surface.
One entry from 1985 said staff inventoried 40 barrels with bag liners, open tops and “burn residue” and about 100 barrels with “grease and/or oily sludge.” A second notice of violation was issued to property owner James Arness, now deceased, after staff found waste released from those leaking barrels, including linseed oil, drag reducing agent, aliphatic hydrocarbon-based grease and weathered diesel oil.
“The quantity of oily sludge contaminated soils (that) were spread on the property was substantial, and the treatment process for these soils was never properly monitored,” the DEC’s site summary reads. It goes on to indicate the “magnitude and extent of the groundwater contamination has not been defined even though it migrated across property boundaries.”
Peter Campbell, a DEC environmental program specialist, said a well installation report indicates the groundwater in the area flows to the southwest — from the Arness site to the AIMM site. Campbell said the dissolving hazardous waste plume coming from the Arness property could impact AIMM’s six current groundwater wells and the site’s proposed leak detection system.
However, no contaminates have been found at the AIMM site, Campbell said.
Martin said AIMM is not concerned about the contamination at the Arness site.
“We have monitored those wells over the last year and have not found any contaminants like those in the Arness site,” he said.
Said Martin, “Have you looked at the rest of Nikiski? The area is littered with sites.”
Steve Chamberlain, owner of Charlie’s Pizza located next to Bakers Road, said his main concern isn’t AIMM building a monofill. Rather he’s concerned about the site’s proximity to the contaminated Arness property.
“I think the way they are planning it is probably safe, I hope,” he said. “... My concern is that when they cap this pit, the water that is normally going to flow down into this area is going to flow off into the adjoining properties that already are contaminated, which will double the amount of water that property takes in.”
Chamberlain said he fears that will speed up the time it will take contaminates from the Arness property to reach the groundwater with less filtration time.
“I’m kind of in the line of fire if you think about the way the aquifer moves,” he said.
Chamberlain is also concerned that if contamination was discovered decades later at the AIMM site, it could be unclear where it is coming from.
“I think they are using this site because then they can say, ‘Oh, that’s just the old contamination,’” Chamberlain said.
When asked whether or not AIMM would be able to know for certain where a detected contamination is coming from, Martin said, “If it is not from us and it is coming from the Arness property? Um, well, I don’t suppose we would.”
However, Campbell said such contaminates move “methodically.”
“So if something was to show up on the down gradient wells versus the up gradient wells you would know it originated from on site,” he said.
In 2011, AIMM paid $568,000 to process and dispose of about 28,000 tons of bulk non-hazardous drill cuttings at the Kenai Peninsula Borough landfill at a rate of $20 per ton, according to a letter the company submitted to the borough.
On Oct. 13, 2011, AIMM was notified by the borough’s solid waste department that the borough, under the administration of former Borough Mayor Dave Carey, who left office less than a month later, would increase the cost from $20 a ton to $85 a ton.
At $85 per ton, it would have cost AIMM $2.38 million to bury the 28,000 tons of waste it did in 2011 at the borough landfill.
“The specifics on what justified that increase, I don’t know,” Carey said.
Mayor Mike Navarre said fees were raised because of the cost of handling the waste.
“It is an expensive program, so when we have to deal with the waste, it costs us,” he said. “So they raised the fees basically to a rate that would cover the cost of dealing with them.”
Navarre said he has heard concerns from Nikiski residents and will likely take a position on the project, but hasn’t yet. He said the borough has no authority over the site’s permitting.
“That’s a very, very difficult issue for the borough because there is no zoning in the areas outside of the cities and that’s what it calls for and if you don’t want industrial uses you have to have some sort of zoning requirements,” he said. “We don’t have any and people have opposed it for years. It is really difficult for the borough to say, ‘You can’t do that,’ whether it is in a residential area.”
Cook Inletkeeper’s Bob Shavelson said his organization is also investigating the proposal. He said such disposals are “fairly standard practice” for oil companies to permit, but he thinks AIMM’s application is unclear as to exactly what will go in the monofill.
“But really, the desirable way to dispose of these things is to put them back down the hole from where they came,” he said.
However, that process costs more money, Shavelson said.
“Somebody bears that cost, and the question is whether that is going to be the corporation and their bottom line that takes a hit or whether it is the community that has to absorb another waste facility,” he said.
Myron McGahan said he is concerned AIMM hasn’t scheduled a public meeting to discuss its plans despite telling the Clarion it would do so. He suspects the company would “have shoved it through and kept it quiet” had it not been for local residents speaking out, he said.
“If we are adjacent landowners, why didn’t they come two feet over and talk?” he said. “They haven’t talked to us, not made any type of contact, formal or informal. The funny part is that we know people that work there.”
Chamberlain said he no longer trusts DEC because of the history at the Arness site.
“They can tell us they are going to do it right and they are going to be safe, but we’ve already lost trust in our DEC,” he said.
“Constantly my wife and I are saying, ‘We’ve got this huge state, why can’t we find somewhere else?’”
Myron fears the Nikiski outcry will do nothing and the site’s fate will end up in the court system, he said.
“Why are they willing to take a chance to devalue everyone’s property, cost us all our houses, our lives, our water?” he said. “Why are they going right into the heart of this community and causing this?”
Brian Smith can be reached at email@example.com.