Editor’s note: This is the first part in a weeklong series examining the history and current status of a contaminated site in Nikiski.
Down a gravel road in the heart of Nikiski rests a piece of property named the Arness Septage Site.
What visitors to the site see looks like a benign piece of land, but what is soaked into the ground has some Nikiski residents fearing for their health, state environmental officials asking for more testing, two brothers defending their family name and a community asking just what exactly happened.
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation officials have a good, but not complete, understanding of what was dumped there in the early 1980s — at least 4,200 gallons of oil-contaminated waste, sludge and other pollutants — but no one knows the extent of the pollution plume left behind.
The site hasn’t been properly monitored, according to DEC field staff, and has sat languishing for decades. When asked how much risk the Arness site poses to the many area residents who rely on groundwater as their primary source of drinking water, DEC Engineer Paul Horwath, an employee since 1985, answers as best he can.
“Nobody knows,” Horwath said.
Recently, the Arness site has come under the microscope due to its proximity to a controversial proposal to build a monofill for oil and gas exploration drilling waste on property a stone’s throw away.
“When I was a little boy I went down that road to that septage site,” said Nikiski resident Myron McGahan, who now lives with his wife and family near the Arness site. “We were little kids on our three-wheelers then and we were dipping these big sticks in it. I remember to this day pulling goo out. Literally like an oily goo.”
Two underground sewer systems used to dispose of wastewater, oil and other hazardous industry chemicals were excavated from the ground in 1988 and the polluted soils were spread on the surface of the land in an attempt to mitigate damage done, according to state records.
But the site was never properly addressed according to DEC standards, Horwath said, and the resulting potential for groundwater contamination has never been defined.
In a 2004 email, Horwath wrote to one of his supervisors that there is “no other project site under our oversight more deserving of the completion of a site assessment due to the potential this site has to negatively impact human health through ingestion of contaminated groundwater.”
However, progress on the site has been stalled for more than a decade. In files at the DEC’s Soldotna office, prior staff wrote efforts were dogged by delays, lack of funding and lack of cooperation between DEC and the land’s owner, Jim Arness, now deceased.
The man who admitted to dumping the waste — Dave Brown — was never charged with a crime, slipped the state border and left Arness to clean up the site, according to DEC records. In his later years, Arness refused to cooperate with DEC, its staff wrote. Eventually Arness blamed DEC staff for introducing the contaminates and constantly changing their stance on what was to be done at the site.
Horwath, who was previously assigned to be the site’s project manager, typed out his explanation about why the site is an anomaly in a state contaminated sites online database. He said DEC staff was “thwarted due to political consideration by politically-appointed administrators within ADEC management” and further alleged the Arness family used political ties to influence how DEC sought to mitigate the site.
Arness’ two sons, Joe and Jim, are stuck to tend to the two, 10-acre parcels now owned by their 87-year-old mother Peggy. They say the claim of political consideration is offensive and untrue.
“For that to show up on this website is disgusting,” said the 61-year-old Joe Arness.
DEC officials who said Horwath’s allegations were not pertinent deleted what he wrote several months after it was entered and within moments of the Peninsula Clarion conducting interviews with staff about the site. DEC administration said they were investigating those claims, but details were not made available.
When concerned Nikiski resident Steve Chamberlain talks about his knowledge of the site he becomes visibly agitated.
“We need a big team with a lawyer — we don’t have what it takes,” he said. “A lot of times we might be reaching. It might sound like a conspiracy theory … coming from both of us, Myron and I, but I think we have enough evidence to show there is a serious problem. … There is obvious collusion and cover-up. Why would they delete (Horwath’s notes)?”
Horwath said the way the site was handled is “contrary” to the way other sites are handled by DEC “by regulation, by policy and by guidance.”
“This is atypical,” Horwath said in a summer interview with the Clarion. “There were repetitive efforts to complete the site assessment here and we were not provided funds to do that.
“We were never given the green light to complete the site assessment.”
Coming Clean: An investigation into the Arness septage site will continue Tuesday with an article looking into the history of the site from permitting to excavation and remediation.
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Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.