Current weather

  • Overcast
  • 55°
  • Comment

Coming Clean: Clouded history at Nikiski site

Posted: December 17, 2012 - 11:21pm  |  Updated: December 26, 2012 - 10:15am
Back | Next
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation file photo An Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation staff member secures a chain to an unearthed 40-foot pipe used at the Arness Septage Site. The pipe was installed on the land previous to a 1979 permit seeking to expand the facility, including a 21-tank system, to hold petroleum products, drilling muds and other sludge. That permit was not approved, but in the late 1980s, DEC excavated more than 4,200 gallons of oily waste at the site in addition to hundreds of barrels containing various oil industry wastes.
Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation file photo An Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation staff member secures a chain to an unearthed 40-foot pipe used at the Arness Septage Site. The pipe was installed on the land previous to a 1979 permit seeking to expand the facility, including a 21-tank system, to hold petroleum products, drilling muds and other sludge. That permit was not approved, but in the late 1980s, DEC excavated more than 4,200 gallons of oily waste at the site in addition to hundreds of barrels containing various oil industry wastes.

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a six-part series.


The regulatory agency history of the Arness Septage Site begins in the late 1970s when James Arness filed to install a septage system on one of the two, 10-acre parcels of land his family owned in the area.

However, state records indicate Arness’ intended purpose for the site has now become clouded because, at the time, “several conflicting reports are given in the files on what responsible parties did or said,” DEC officials wrote.

“The exact degree of the responsible parties’ consent to violations is unlikely to ever be discovered,” a 1992 report reads.

According to a 1989 DEC document on the site, Arness filed an application to install 21 large drilling mud tanks in 1979. Prior to that, a 40-foot pipe and tank septage system was used at the site. Plans indicated the septage dump facility would only receive pumping from septic tanks, but not oily waste.

Shortly after the permit was submitted, an application to modify it to a “special waste” handling site was requested but never approved, according to the state’s investigation.

“The engineers apparently had no firm conception of how oily waste products, drilling mud and water-conditioning sludges would be handled, but proposed the testing of a number of concepts,” investigators wrote.

A DEC regional supervisor at the time wrote to the Kenai District Office and said staff should “violently oppose” the expanded facility and said Arness needed to stop “the current bypassing” of the local office by his engineers.

Officials asked for specific details about the proposal and how it would protect public health, but “the required engineering, physical and chemical data was never submitted,” the investigation alleges. DEC issued a normal septage disposal permit a month later set to expire in 1984, but investigators noted no permits for handling oil waste were issued.

DEC representatives visited the site in December 1979 in response to Arness’ report of an unauthorized dumping, and Arness agreed to restrict site access in response.

According to staff reports, Arness said as many as 300 barrels of oil had been disposed of at the site, however the incident was not reported to DEC until the cleanup was nearly complete.

Between 1983 and 1985, DEC staff made no recorded attempts to investigate the site, and around that time, Arness leased the property to Dave Brown of MAR Enterprises.

In 1982, the Soldotna Fire Department filed a complaint about Brown regarding leaking drums of drag reducing agent from a Pioneer Oilfield Service spill in Fairbanks and the fire hazard the drums posed while stored on property he owned, according to Environmental Protection Agency documents. It is unclear whether the drag reducing agent came from Pioneer or Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, as both companies are mentioned in DEC and EPA paperwork.

Drag reducing agent is a by-product of oil production and is added to crude oil to reduce friction and wear in pipelines. It is considered hazardous to human health, according to the EPA.

As a result of DEC’s actions on Soldotna Fire’s complaint, Brown attempted to move the drums to the Arness site, but access was restricted and the 150 drums were stored at another property, DEC officials wrote. A 1992 DEC report alleges Brown burned the some of the 1,742 gallons of drag reducing agent when he was forced to clean up that property. Brown moved the burn residue to the Arness site, according to documents.

In 1985 the Alaska Health Project filed complaints about the Arness site and the state obtained search warrants. Investigation revealed about 200 barrels of drag reducing agent and waste oil stored on the property, much of which was spilled onto the ground.

Brown submitted cleanup plans, but DEC staff considered those “inadequate,” according to documents. Brown was allowed to burn the remaining drag reducing agent on site in 1985 in the barrels despite DEC concerns it would not burn in compliance with smoke and pollutant regulations.

In November of 1985, DEC filed criminal charges against Brown, but “prosecution is declined, no reason given,” according to the documents.

In 1986, the state informed Arness, Brown and Alyeska Pipeline Service Company that a cleanup was needed, it would proceed with or without their assistance and future legal action to recover the costs of the cleanup would be warranted. In February of that year, Kenai District Office staff visited the site and found an estimated 4,200 gallons of oil-contaminated septage in the two underground disposal systems.

The state prepared bid packages in 1986 attempting to tap a state pot of money to start clean up. However, a state budget crisis began and that account was “frozen.” The EPA’s preliminary assessment was not performed until 1987.

In a 1986 letter, Shannon Turner, state assistant District Attorney, stated she denied prosecution due to the case’s lengthy history and “to now proceed with the prosecution after all these years would appear to be prosecutorial vindictiveness.” She said the state should seek a civil and not criminal resolution.

In 1986, Brown declared bankruptcy and left the state, staff wrote in a 1992 memo. A few months later the state corresponded with the Attorney General’s office, but officials there said filing a lawsuit “would be a lengthy and expensive process with no guaranteed results,” according to records.

“The oil spill reserve account was frozen. The AG’s office was closing the files,” the 1992 report reads.

Later in 1987, DEC staff found that drag reducing agent, boat bilge water, oil platform wash water and fish heads were dumped into the 21-tank system and samples identified materials resembling polymerized linseed oil, saturated aliphatic hydrocarbon grease, arctic low temperature grease and weathered diesel fuel, according to state documents.

James Arness died in 2006, and his sons, Joe Arness and Jim Arness, have been left to tend to the site for their mother, Peggy Arness.

Joe Arness, in a recent interview with the Clarion, said he looks at DEC and wonders why the agency didn’t pursue normal, swift regulation and clean up of the site. The Arness brothers said they remember hearing murmurs of trouble at the site at the time but the two stayed out of their father’s business.

“That whole thing was something that my dad did and he was a pretty active guy and he was out doing his thing,” Joe Arness said.

Jim Arness said he wonders why the companies who made the fluids that were dumped there were not made to pay for the clean up when the man they hired to properly dispose of them neglected that duty.

“Why were they really never a part of this issue?” he said.

“I believe (the site never being fully assessed) had to do more with the internal workings of the DEC than it had to do with who Jim Arness was,” Joe Arness said. “... They didn’t know what to do next. This is the reality that we face right now — by all accounts, engineers, DEC, anyone says, ‘You can’t clean that up, there’s nothing you can do about it.’”

In 1988, DEC staff dug up the septage site. Video of the excavation shows equipment hauling the old containment system — 21 interconnected, perforated tanks and an open-ended, 40-foot-by-4-foot steel pipe — away from the site. As the pipe is pulled up the side of the pit, a black sludge flows out of it. Other portions of the video show subsequent groundwater well installation and sampling.

According to the DEC’s history of the site, EPA stepped away from investigating the location in 1990 by flagging it “No Further Action” required. However, EPA staff said no records were found in files after 1988, and it was working with state officials to correct those records.

The remaining contaminated soils from the site were spread out under a landfarming process that stipulated Arness till the site annually to help deteriorate the wastes naturally. DEC Kenai Office engineer Peter Campbell said landfarming is a typical process to remediate contaminated sites.

That process, Campbell said, is common when resources are limited and if the site were found today, it would likely be treated in the same manner. Oil — the bulk of what was at the Arness site — does not spread through the ground as voraciously as chlorinated solvents. The idea with landfarming, he said, is to take the mass of contaminates, spread them out and allow weathering processes to dilute them over time.


This series will continue Wednesday with a look into the history of the site from excavation to its current state. The first article in this series may be found at

Part 3: Lingering pollutants and 'old wounds'

■ ■ ■

Brian Smith can be reached at

  • Comment

Comments (2) Add comment
ADVISORY: Users are solely responsible for opinions they post here and for following agreed-upon rules of civility. Posts and comments do not reflect the views of this site. Posts and comments are automatically checked for inappropriate language, but readers might find some comments offensive or inaccurate. If you believe a comment violates our rules, click the "Flag as offensive" link below the comment.
BigRedDog 12/18/12 - 11:35 am
Hey Hey EPA!

Maybe the EPA has ignored this potential hazard so long they realize there might just be some liability in looking. No kidding, ignoring such a highly trusted responsibility as the very water the public consumes has it's cost. And contrary to an individual not having responsibility to encriminate themselves, the EPA does not have that option. If they knew or suspected it this long and have not taken care of the publics safety then maybe they weren't doing their JOB! I'll bet every EPA agent envolved will still get that healthy golden parachute when they retire. What will be the greatest cost to the public, the EPA doing their JOB or the EPA not doing their job?
The potential for a faniancial disaster to anyone left holding the bag so to speak is really unfair. I don't see that anyone really got rich of screwing the public other than the industries who prospered via the disposal of the evidence. If the EPA even had a whiff or susupected any illegal activity and failed to properly investigate for this many years, then I have a problem with the EPA!
Because at my old PCB corral we knew almost every little dot and tittle had better be straight up and down right or we could be fined. Our local utiltiy was the only one of 5 in the rail belt to not be fined for our PCB record keeping and or dispoal documentation. Those fines started out at the low of $125,000 and went up to over a Million $ over the years to one of our railbelt utilties. These are the type of fines you pay by spending that much money on your PCB program to bail yourself out for not doing it right in the first place! But any negligence would not be tolerated.
The public in the PCB debockle paid the price as end users even though GE and Monsanto made billions off the sales of PCB's. We got the priviledge of paying for the disposal and it was the most expensive part of the deal. How that applies to this situation is NEGLIGENCE has occurred on the part of the EPA in this matter. And now we see the EPA is trying to leave responsibility for their inaction on the current property owner who did nothing but inheirit the problem the same as current EPA employees! Looks like somebody should put that BIG paper bag of --sniff on EPA's porch and set it on FIRE, let's hope somebody runs out and stomps it out.

Watchman on the Wall
Watchman on the Wall 12/18/12 - 01:50 pm
Virginia EPA

The National news just showed the EPA coming in and impounding the lands of citizens that had water run off into differant streams under the guise of Protecting the public.
There were no dump sites other than septic systems i think, but the GOVT. wants to control and steal peoples things and the state of Virginia is just the beginning. Probably because they voted for Romney and have the coal mines that are also being shut down, who knows for sure why they do what they do other than in an effort of ABSOLUTE CONTROL.
The stories we could tell about HEA, Red Dog and I.
My father-in-law, a power lineman died of cancer right about the very same time 2 other HEA employees, also power linemen died of cancer. Their bodies were totally consumed in cancer cells. All three of them worked in the PCB dept at HEA when the First push to remove all the electrical equipment that contained PCB's system wide. I can't prove that their working with these pcb's daily without proper protection killed them, but it sure makes one wonder due to their untimely deaths all around the very same time, as well from cancer that totally consumed their entire bodies.
When the top business people, management or govt. say trust us, we care for you, be careful, very careful and if you see the slightest movement or sound come from their lips, run, because your about to incure much troubles.

Back to Top


Please Note: You may have disabled JavaScript and/or CSS. Although this news content will be accessible, certain functionality is unavailable.

Skip to News

« back

next »

  • title
  • title
  • title
My Gallery


  • 150 Trading Bay Rd, Kenai, AK 99611
  • Switchboard: 907-283-7551
  • Circulation and Delivery: 907-283-3584
  • Newsroom Fax: 907-283-3299
  • Business Fax: 907-283-3299
  • Accounts Receivable: 907-335-1257
  • View the Staff Directory
  • or Send feedback